I never know what to expect when I go to the jail.
Today was a perfect example. I wasn’t even sure I was going to be able to go because my wife Mari had one of our two cars at the women’s retreat and I had to get two kids to church in the morning. Fortunately they were willing to go early so I could drop them off and still have enough time to drive up to Santa Paula where the jail I minister at is located.
When I got there, there were fewer volunteers than usual; only 3 men and 3 women. It was obvious I’d be going into one of the 4 sections by myself. I was assigned to section “C.” The deputy in charge in “C”, whom I didn’t recognize from earlier visits, told me I would have 4 different groups of half an hour each.
This was a first. Every other time, I get one group for the entire hour and a half to two hours. But this deputy, for whatever reason, wanted to make sure the maximum number of inmates got to attend church (the deputies and volunteers all call it “church” when we come on Sunday to minister the Word of God – this is as close as they can get to an actual church while they’re locked up). These 4 groups of men had to be segregated from each other for security reasons, so they couldn’t be in the same room at the same time.
The first group was 3 men. Of the three, one was most talkative, and he also knew his bible pretty well and asked intelligent questions. It seems he’s a believer and is actually evangelizing within the jail. I suspect that the other two are fruits of his evangelistic efforts, a ministry which he has taken quite seriously and is effective at. The chaplains know him.
It was the second session that moved me, probably more than any other occasion there. This was just one guy. He looked young, scared, and lost. He didn’t say much, and he didn’t have a bible. He had tattoos on his arms, neck, and fingers. His head was shaved. I asked him if he knew anything about the bible, to which he replied he didn’t. I now remembered overhearing the deputies in the hallway talking about him. This was his first time in jail, and from what I gathered, today might have been his first day there. I asked his name. “Sean,” he said.
I knew this was serious and I would only have perhaps 15 minutes. Sean, behind his tough exterior, was newly uprooted from his familiar surroundings, very alone, and very scared. I looked him in the eyes and said, “OK, I’m going to give you the gospel.” For the next 10 minutes I told him about man’s sinfulness, God’s righteousness, His punishment for sin, and the price Jesus paid to redeem His children. I went to the 10 commandments, and the Romans Road. I went to a description of eternal torment for sinners in Revelation 14. I tried to speak to his heart. I could see him responding non-verbally, as I tried my best to make it real, relatable and urgent. “We’re all going to die and face God alone in judgment,” I told him. “There’s no getting out of that. So it’s imperative that you put your faith and trust in Jesus to save you from God’s wrath for your sins and to restore the relationship God is waiting to have with you.” I could tell he was tracking with me, that it was sinking in.
Eventually I told him, “You could have God’s forgiveness right here, right now, if you decide to put your faith and trust in Jesus.”
He hesitated for a moment. “I don’t think I’m ready for that. Everybody in my life is nowhere near that, I’d be cut off from them all. And my mom’s worse than any of them.”
“If you find a good church, they could become your new friends and your new family,” I said. “This is your eternal life we’re talking about, and whether you’re going to spend it in heaven with Jesus, or in hell.” I told him the sinner’s prayer, and that anytime he decided to, he could say that prayer from his heart and God would hear from Heaven and would forgive him for his sins and receive him into His kingdom.
Outside, the deputy came to the steel door, put in his keys and opened it. It was time for Sean to go. As he left, he looked stunned. “You have something to think about, God bless you,” I said. “Thank you,” Sean said as he walked out. “Thank you very much.”
I may never see Sean again, nor hear of his fate. Yet I am confident that on this day, Sean has heard the most important message of his life, and it has rocked his world. It may very well be that getting arrested saved Sean’s life for eternity.
I hope, when you finish reading this, you’ll say a prayer for Sean.