Return to March/April 2012 articles.
The cover of this month's issue is a picture drawn by Robert Avila, one of the students in our correspondence course. Robert is incarcerated at Lubbock, Texas, and has studied with us for many years. He has been on dialysis all that time, but maintains a positive spirit as well as possessing great artistic ability. When I moved to South Bend, Indiana, in 1959 and tried to find something I could do in the local congregation, there were two areas available. One was working with teenagers in the area and in the church, and the other was a small jail ministry. Since I was employed as a teacher and had experience in the military with prisons and military prison training programs, I took on both ministries. Now I find myself 52 years later still involved in both.
My work with high school and college-age students and my experiences with prisoners have convinced me that a major remedy for the problems of young people and people in prison is to help them find a solid faith in God — help which is found in the teachings of Christ. The action of God's Spirit can give people struggling with direction in life a solid start on getting and keeping their lives in order.
Atheists would like to convince us that there is no correlation between belief in God and moral conduct. Frequently we will hear people give statistics suggesting that most prisoners have a church preference in their records. The problem with such suggestions is first of all that “atheist” is not a choice in most prison entry forms. Even if it is, most prisoners will not select it because many denominations have programs in prisons that give prisoners benefits if they belong. Prisoners have also found that being “religious” can bring them advantages when dealing with guards, wardens, parole boards, and halfway houses. The fact is that one-on-one studies with prisoners nearly always indicate that their rejection of God and church is associated with the behavior that landed them in prison.
When the Does God Exist? ministry began in 1968 with programs in colleges, universities, and town meetings, we were frequently invited to speak in local jails and state prisons where jail ministries were in operation. Since we had free postpaid correspondence courses in both apologetics and basic Bible studies, we made these courses available to inmates. We now have some 15,000 men and women who have taken or are currently taking our courses while in prison. We have 26 lessons in apologetics (in two courses) as well as lessons in basic Bible studies.
Our greatest challenge is following up with students who want personal contact, baptism, communion, re-entry help, or help with their families. We have prison students in 50 states and many foreign countries, and prisons are not popular places for people to go to see them. The usual concern is that prisoners are not really sincere, but just want to impress prison officials by pretending they have changed their ways. There is no question that sometimes (perhaps a majority of the time) this is true. The question is, what is the value of one person who genuinely makes a change of heart and becomes a new person in the sense of Romans 6:4? What will be the influence of such a person on the prison? How many repeat offenders will this person stop, and what will be the affect of that? When that person gets out, how many young people will he or she redirect to avoid prison?
A massive number of young people in prison got into trouble because they were never given logical, consistent, informed, biblical answers to good questions. When a young person is told, “because I said so” or gets a shrug, he will assume that there is no answer. In our apologetics courses the first lessons deal with things like:
- How do we know that God exists?
- How do we know which God is the true God?
- How do we know the Bible is true?
- Why do we exist?
- Why does God allow suffering?
- Why am I special?
- How do I know I will live when this life is over?
- Why should I not immerse myself in sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.?
When these questions are not logically and rationally answered and a person has no reason to accept any guide or moral limitation in life, the result is going to be disastrous.
Too many Bible correspondence courses and class studies ignore these vital questions and ask students to make simple, mindless, multiple choice answers out of a lesson book that are simply copied and require no understanding. Those students get a certificate to add to their parole board dossier — but the questions that put them into destructive behavior in the first place remain unanswered.
This article is a call to prison work and workers to look at what is being done in prisons and what the real needs are. People whose lives are in chaos need to start with basics and learn to think through what is needed to guide their lives. The Does God Exist? program offers two courses free to all prisoners. The basic course is written at an upper elementary grade level and is where most prisoners should start. Academically strong students should take the college level course and may wish to participate in our scholarship program.
We stand ready to assist all attempts to reach those in our society who are disenfranchised and desperately in need of a solid direction for their lives.
Cover picture and smaller pictures drawn by Robert Avila
Course pictures by Roland Earnst