At Divine Shepherd Lutheran Church in Omaha, Nebraska, prison ministry has made inroads into the lives of those behind bars. There, Vern Nemitz, the church's director of outreach, along with members Joni Johnson, Lyle Kruse, Dean Raabe, and others conduct frequent visits and in-house Bible studies with prisoners at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution, and other jail locations. These visits have opened doors for one-on-one communication and a chance to share the best news a prisoner can hear: in Christ Jesus, there is forgiveness of sin and a new life available.
As part of this effort, Lutheran Hour Ministries' Project Connect booklets have played a substantial role. Numerous titles have been given by ministry volunteers to inmates to read and share. As a result of these contacts, and with the help of these topical booklets, prisoners are increasingly empowered to deal with life issues and seek out additional help from prison staff and visiting volunteers.
Kruse has kept a list of "divine events" that have taken place among prisoners, using LHM's Project Connect topical booklets:
- Young men have asked to be baptized due to the study of Loved ... And Not Forgotten.
- Young men have asked us to help them learn to pray after studying the Prayer: When You Don't Know What to Say.
- Young and old men have asked to study the Bible after reading What Happens When I Die.
- Two Satanists are attending Christian church services after their reading of Great Deceiver.
- Several men have asked for forgiveness after studying Forgiveness Is a Choice. Several have forgiven their family members and asked for forgiveness from other family members.
- Men have different levels of understanding of the Bible, and The Bible: What? When? Why? helps them understand the Old Testament in comparison to the New Testament and how to read the Bible to find answers to their issues.
- The Finding Peace booklet has helped prisoners find peace for themselves, while showing them how to make peace with their family (even if the family has deserted them).
- Several men have attempted suicide or were planning to take their lives. However, hearing CD sermons from The Lutheran Hour, reading a number of booklets, and attending Bible studies have given them a chance to understand in a new way the love Jesus has for them.
"It's Matthew 25 stuff!" said Senior Pastor Dr. Mark Hannemann, referencing the Scripture where Jesus speaks about caring for the "least of these" who are thirsty, hungry, without clothes, sick, and in prison. "We have been recruiting more to be involved. Things are developing in the Nebraska District as well, and our guys are leading the way," he added.
According to Dr. Marvin Bergman, coordinator for the Nebraska District Lay Leadership Training Program, formal instruction is currently assisting individuals to conduct prison ministry. "To further equip men and women to serve as Bible study leaders in jails and prisons, the Nebraska District's Jail and Prison Ministry Committee, chaired by Pastor Jeff Bloom of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Lincoln, is offering a series of courses," Bergman said.
"They are, 'Jail and Prison Culture and Ministry,' Liz Stanosheck, leader; 'Narratives of the Old and New Testaments,' Pastor Tim Heupel, leader; 'Faith Foundations: The Lutheran Confessions,' Professor Terry Groth, leader. New courses to be offered this fall are, 'Affirming and Discipling in Jail and Prison Ministry,' Warren Viehl, leader; and 'Leading Bible Study in Jail and Prison Ministry,' Liz Stanosheck, leader. Upon course completion, the participant can be certified by his or her congregation as a Bible study leader, with a certificate serving as an endorsement that is recognized by jail and prison personnel for service as a volunteer leader," Bergman added.
Still, the demand is far more than the supply available. "The number of opportunities for leading Bible studies in jails and prisons in the state of Nebraska far exceeds the number of certified leaders. This leadership event is intended to address a special opportunity to teach the Word of God and share the Gospel with men and women who often welcome this ministry," Bergman said.
For more about Project Connect, visit www.lhm.org/projectconnect.