Back in Prison – But I Go Home Every Day

          For the past few months I have been in prison 5-6 hours a day Monday to Friday. No, I'm not serving time but serving the Lord in prison. Is it a job or ministry? It's both. It helps pay the bills while working with a team to plant Grace Church in West Philadelphia. It gives me access to men who desperately need to hear the gospel and daily opportunities to point them to redemption and true freedom in the Lord Jesus. I've been given the fancy title of "addictions therapist" although I'd rather have a raise than the title.   

          When my wife and I moved back into Philadelphia for church planting I thought that at some point I would need to find work. Of the newer churches in Philadelphia I don't know of any planted in the last seven years that are self-supporting. Many church planting pastors are either bi-vocational or connected with denominations or movements that provide long-term support in recognition of the financial challenges urban churches and church planters face. I haven’t found the right denomination or movement yet so bi-vocational it is for now.

           With high unemployment I wondered what work I would find or what work I am qualified to do. My degrees and years of theological studies didn’t provide me with many marketable skills. This is one reason I encourage young men to get an undergraduate degree in something other than Bible. I have a B.A. in Bible, two master’s degrees, and an earned doctorate but few skills that employers are looking for. Interestingly enough, studies in theology are considered a related field to social work and behavioral health.

           My sons think it’s funny that I now have a “real” job for the first time in a long time. Yet at this time I can’t think of a better place to be than in prison with my men. I normally carry a caseload of thirty men who have to meet with me twice monthly for one-on-one “therapy” and once weekly for a two-hour group session.  All my men are drug addicts and being treated with methadone to stabilize them and to stop opiate cravings. For many of them jail time is the longest stretch of clean time they have known for a long time. Of course they can still get some drugs in prison but for most of them it’s too expensive and/or not worth the risk. Plus I submit them to a monthly random drug test.

          If you are going to plant churches in urban areas you should know something about drugs and incarceration. In some parts of Philadelphia one out of two men has either been incarcerated or is currently in prison. On any given day there are about ten thousand inmates in the six Philadelphia prisons all bunched together on one road.  You never get completely used to the clanging of the metal doors and being surrounded by inmates with a handful of guards. There are about 125 men on our unit and two unarmed guards. Yes, the inmates can take over our unit at any time. Only once they take it over they have nowhere to go. The doors can only be opened from central control outside the unit.

          All-in-all it’s been an interesting and rewarding experience. Two weeks ago one of my men confessed Christ as Savior. With him and others I can do Bible studies during our individual counseling sessions if they request it. On a regular basis men ask me for New Testaments and even men not on my caseload know they can talk to me about spiritual things. Before my guys are released I meet with them to pray and to give them information about churches in their neighborhood. I give them a “stay-out-of-jail” pen with our church name and web site if they want to contact me. Many people look at these men as bums and druggies with little value. If you could hear their stories you would be shocked and saddened at what led many of them to become drug addicts and what they’ve done to support those habits. God sees them as redeemable, loved, and in need of transforming grace. I want to see them through His eyes.

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