Stephen Clegg, Yorkshire [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
If God called, would you be willing to obey?
Eight years ago as a married man with two daughters, my own business, and actively involved in the local assembly happily attending all the gatherings of the Lord’s people and carrying out responsibilities for the Sunday School and youth work, I thought I was doing all I could for the Lord in the time I had at my disposal. It was then that the Lord spoke to me about work in prisons!
I attended a report meeting taken by our late brother Ron Hutchinson in which he gave an account of what he had been led of the Lord to do in the prisons of the area. This was to turn my life upside down. The calling was direct, and came as a challenge from the Lord both to me and to my wife, Judith. After seeking God’s guidance in prayer, His answer came early one morning. I was reading Acts 16 verse 27, ‘Waking out of his sleep, he saw the prison doors open’. These words jumped from the page and I fell to my knees praying, ‘Which prison do You want me to go, Lord?’ Within twenty-four hours I knew which prison.
Shortly afterwards, I commenced my first Bible Class in HMP Ranby. I had up to twenty men in my group each week. This group continued every Wednesday evening for the next four years. The Lord then opened another door at another prison; this time HMP Doncaster. I have held a Bible Class here every Monday afternoon for the past three and a half years; each time again having up to twenty men attending each week.
HMP Doncaster is a dispersal prison, feeding men into the prison system following their conviction. Prisoners are often moved from here to HMP Moorlands, where just twelve months ago I was able to start a Bible Class in that prison with young offenders who are all under twenty-one years old. I get between ten to eighteen of them every week.
The scripture would remind us to count the cost before starting a work for God, Luke 14. 28. I would urge anyone considering prison work really to challenge their hearts before the Lord as to whether they are prepared to devote the time required which is spent in preparation and then in the prison itself.
In my opening paragraph I stated that I am in the prisons every Monday and every Wednesday. This emphasis is intentional. Men in prison have a lot of time to think. They look forward in eager anticipation to the Bible Classes and expect you to be there. Don’t get the idea you can just go now and again. You have to build up relationships and gain confidences so the men know that you are reliable and can be trusted. They read your life as well as listening to your message. It is this element of consistency and commitment, especially to the local assembly, that would make us a greater witness and impact for the Lord in the locality where He has placed us.
Perhaps you are thinking could this be a ministry for me?
There are four things that you need to consider carefully:
1. How do I start?
I would again emphasize the scripture already mentioned in Luke 14. 28. Count the cost and ask yourself, Can I complete the building I am about to start? Can you stand fast in the battle you are about to commence? Once you have sought the Lord’s will and you feel that He is calling you to this great work, you need to speak to the Senior Chaplain, usually Anglican, at the prison you feel the Lord has led you to. Don’t be surprised if you get a cold reception. Some of the chaplaincies don’t appear to know the Saviour personally. You will no doubt be asked what type of Christian outreach you want to do. There are many visitors to the chaplaincy department from all denominations who hold singing groups, coffee evenings, quiz nights, charades, etc. Sadly, you will note that not many focus on teaching the word of God. If the chaplain is willing to grant your request to hold a Bible Class, various security forms will need to be completed. These are either sent to the police Criminal Records Office or the Home Office, or both, depending on the security state of the prison; i.e., Category A prisons are the highest security through to Category D which are open prisons. Clearance could take anything up to three months or maybe longer. Once clearance is obtained you will be invited into prison to hold your Bible Class. You will probably be in the care/supervision of one of the other chaplains, until you get used to the atmosphere and security issues of the prison.
2. What happens in a Prison Bible Class?
We are exhorted to be instant in season and out of season, 2 Tim. 4. 2, and opportunities arise on a weekly basis to share the gospel in prison to do this. It’s an amazing feeling when the prisoners start to arrive. We usually sit in the chapel or one of the anterooms and the prisoners will join me, sitting in a circle. After the usual welcome chat I will open with a word of prayer. My experience of this is that every head will bow and every eye will be shut for prayer. Following prayer the lads are encouraged to read the passage of scripture. I would then start to preach/teach from the passage. After only a few minutes questions will start to be asked. Some are relevant to the passage, others perhaps raising issues from weeks before and some on things that have concerned the lads throughout the past week. You will always get some that are just thrown in as red herrings. As I start to get bombarded with yet more questions I make sure they have some form of relevance in my mind, and then they are all answered.
We are encouraged in scripture to study, to show ourselves approved unto God, rightly dividing the word of truth, 2 Tim. 2. 15. I would challenge every reader to study his or her Bible. Sometimes we may not understand it, but if we have read it and it has a place in our hearts, the Holy Spirit can help us to recall the scripture and use it to the glory of the Lord Jesus. I recall my first evening in prison. Having preached on the finished work of Christ, one of the lads, Andrew, asked a red herring question, ‘What colour are your socks?’ Instantly the Lord gave me the words from 1 Samuel 16. 7, ‘God looks on the heart’, and I spoke for the next few minutes on that verse. Andrew was the first prisoner I led to the Saviour, and he was followed a couple of weeks later by his younger brother Paul. These are the thrills of the work.
3. Is it more than just the time in prison?
YES! The most important time is prayer and preparation and this you must not fail to do as it’s not long before you are back in for the next group. Some of the lads will have moved to other prisons or have been released. They will write from all over the country, some asking questions that are causing them concern, perhaps from verses of scripture they may have read for themselves, others wanting ‘fatherly’ advice. The other week I had five letters to write. You may be asked to write to families on occasions, or visit a sick relative. Perhaps one of the lads who has been released wants to meet up for a coffee and a chat. Sometimes he only wants reassurance from the person he has come to respect whilst in the prison. You may get an invite from a lad who has moved to another prison, and he wants you to visit him in this prison. Judith, my wife, and I will sometimes travel many miles to visit the lads in other prisons around the country as in a sense they have become part of our family.
4. Would I see blessing?
The Lord’s commission was to go, and He promises to be with us, Matt. 28 19, 20. It has been a great thrill over the past eight years to see the Lord gloriously save men whom the world has written off. Men who are known for their violence are changed into men who love the Saviour and have a love for their fellow men. As I write these words men whom I love dearly in Christ come into my mind. Men like Alan, serving life but now holding a Bible Class in another prison. Jason, the most violent man I have ever met, sentenced to three life sentences, yet now rejoicing that he has found the Saviour in prison, and is busy reaching others for the Lord – men whom you and I could never otherwise reach. There’s Andy, Billy, Neil, Mark, Richard, Marc, Alirazer and many, many more whom the Lord has reached and saved. The hymnwriter penned those wonderful words, ‘The vilest offender who truly believes’ and we echo back to that, ‘To God be the glory, great things He has done’.
We have our times of sadness, when lads who are going on well are released and they go back to their homes where the Lord is not feared. Although they try, they are attacked by the evil one who throws temptation in their path, usually drugs, and sadly they fall. We have to be there for them on their return to prison, and to give them the caring support that they require. We never say, ‘I told you so’, but always remember the timely warning of 1 Corinthians 10 verse 12, ‘take heed lest he fall’.
As I come to the close of this small insight into prison evangelism, I would like to leave with you some words from the last letter I received from Jason in a prison in the south of England. He wrote, ‘I am overwhelmed by the thirst for God I see in my fellow prisoners. A lad called Ricky came into my cell, and said ‘Let’s talk about God’. You’d love it here, Steve. Please pray for us. I wish God would send us someone like you, skilled at leading prisoners to the Lord’. The answer to that prayer could well be you! Pressing on in the work of the Lord, I now reflect on my opening remarks, married, but now with two married daughters with fine Christian husbands and two granddaughters. I still operate my own business, and am fully involved in the local assembly. It is great to appreciate the truth of Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4 verse 12 which certainly fits our experience in Prison Work! Can I challenge you to consider it a work you could do for God?
AUTHOR PROFILE: An elder in the assembly at Killamarsh, Yorkshire, England. He runs his own printing business and has been involved in prison evangelism for eight years. Stephen and his wife have two married daughters.