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09/11/2017

Have you heard about our prison ministry?  

Stephen James
 

Meet Stephen James, our Director of Prison Ministry, and find out how he became involved in our work. He joined Christianity Explored Ministries in 2008 to help develop our courses for prisons, after spending time in prison himself.

I grew up in Leek, England, the youngest of five children. My father was an alcoholic, and was physically and psychologically abusive. We grew up in fear.

My school performance suffered, and at 15 years old I began to follow in my father’s footsteps.

I lived my life in the bars, pubs and clubs. And that progressed to drugs. It started with cannabis, and quickly spiraled into speed, ecstasy, LSD and eventually methadone.

I started dealing in drugs. The low point of my life was using intravenously—injecting heroin five to six times a day. Before my arrest, I remember feeling suicidal and thinking I couldn’t carry on like this.
 

Finding hope in prison

In 1995 I was caught and convicted for possession of heroin with intent to supply, and sentenced to four years in prison. I served two years and I was convinced being in prison hadn’t changed my desire for taking illegal substances when released.

But near the end of my sentence, Victory Outreach from South Wales visited HMP Shrewsbury. They brought ex-offenders with them, who shared their stories of brokenness, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. I identified with them.

The message was clear, Jesus had changed their lives and I was faced with the same dilemma. I didn’t think my life could change and now I was being challenged to seek out Jesus for myself. I thought, ‘how does this Jesus change your life?’

I asked for a Bible from the chaplaincy and began exploring Jesus for myself. I found the answers to my questions about life, purpose and identity, and I committed my life to Christ.

When I was released in 1997 I was determined not to go back to the old lifestyle. With the support of Victory Outreach, I moved to South Wales and rebuilt my life. I went back to school, earned a college degree, met my wife, got married and started a family.
 

Called to go back

I’d put my time in prison behind me when, in 2008, Christianity Explored Ministries approached me about developing a course, based on the Gospel of Mark, to be delivered in prisons.

I didn’t want to go back to prison! But I felt a calling to go back. It was clear that God wanted me to be involved in prison ministry.

I’ve spent the past eight years developing and teaching the prison editions of Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored.

This has also become the basis for Prison Fellowship International’s in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®.

The challenge was to write the course to fit the needs of the prison context, to keep the prisoners’ interests and accommodate varying academic levels.

The course is mostly oral and the exercises are kept short and visual with questions and drawings on flip charts, and lots of repetition.

We talk about what we’ve discovered from the gospel of Mark, working through Jesus’ identity, mission and call. We work step-by-step through a theme each week, and look at a couple of verses, and then a passage. We keep the guys moving around a lot.
 

Loving the prisoner

I wouldn’t trade helping prisoners discover Jesus for anything.

Men and women come into the course saying the same things I used to say: “I can’t change, you don’t know where I’ve been.” It’s incredible seeing them, step-by-step, begin to understand and live the message and hope of Christ.

One of the most rewarding things I’ve heard a prisoner say is, “I’m more free in prison than I would be outside, now that I have Christ in my life.”

Now I travel the globe to train leaders to teach the course.

As an ex-convict this can be challenging when you have criminal convictions. It’s like I’m constantly vetted as a person each time I apply for a visa to enter a new country. But I wouldn’t endure this work if it wasn’t for the fact that we’re introducing prisoners around the globe to the ‘best news’ they could ever hear. The forgiveness of sins and a new life in Christ!
 

One of the most rewarding things I’ve heard a prisoner say is, “I’m more free in prison than I would be outside, now that I have Christ in my life.”


It is about loving the prisoner and introducing them to Jesus, the one who really does love them.

For me, the issue isn’t about what they’ve done (even though this is important for prisoners to address) but getting them to the place where they can see that their biggest need is to know and follow Jesus.

And sometimes that’s tough. Because we’re good at loving people who are good towards us, who are nice people, who think and have the same intellectual ability as us but we have to place our confidence in the transforming work of Jesus and to continue persevering in our calling, to point prisoners to him.

And I haven’t been refused in any country yet. That’s an amazing testimony, isn’t it?


Keep your eyes peeled for more posts updating you on this area of our ministry in the coming months.

Find out more about the prison editions of Christianity Explored and Discipleship Explored. A prison edition of Life Explored is in development. 

 

Story adapted from Prison Fellowship International's 'To Prison and Back: A Prisoner's Journey'. Prison Fellowship helps restore justice and healing in response to crime in more than 120 countries. For more information visit pfi.org
 
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