Ministering in Prison

My experience with working in prisons.

WILLIAM H. BERGHERM                                                            

There are more than 160,­000 prisoners in the State and Federal prisons of America today. For the most part, these prisoners are young men between the ages of eighteen and thirty, and their number is constantly increasing. The average stay of prisoners in institutions of correction is less than three years. Most prisoners are either com­pletely outside the pale of organized churches or are only superficially linked to their churches. In working among these men one wonders if these are not the fall-out from organized society, and if the church, in its urge toward respecta­bility, is not grossly guilty of failing and alto­gether neglecting these disinherited souls. These men long for spiritual security as much as any other human being. I have had many men come to my office with tears in their eyes, plead­ing for spiritual power to overcome their weak­nesses and besetting sins.

My experience with prisoners has been in con­nection with the Pastoral Clinical Training Course as provided by the Council for Clinical Training of New York City. Under the guid­ance of a supervising chaplain I have had the privilege of interviewing all prisoners as they come into the Federal Detention Headquar­ters of New York. This work of interviewing prisoners, both in the office and in their cells, has given me the opportunity of meeting scores and scores of prisoners of all classes, intelli­gence, and background. Some are recidivists who have a long criminal record, while oth­ers are young men of sixteen and seventeen years of age. A large percentage of the men are narcotics or are engaged in the sale of drugs. Others have been guilty of stealing cars, rob­bing banks, forging checks, et'Cetera. Inasmuch as I am the only resident chaplain at this in­stitution, I have been asked to interview men of all faiths. To many I have the privilege of passing on Christian literature, giving Christian guidance, and sometimes joining with them in prayer.

Among the most pitiful of the prisoners en­tering this institution are the narcotics. One man who had forged a U.S. check to get money to buy more heroin, wept as he told me of the miserable condition to which his family had been reduced since he had begun to use the vile killer. He has four children for whom he had always provided a good home until he began using "junk" a year and a half ago. He told me he didn't own a decent suit of clothes today. He had lost all his friends and he couldn't bor­row a nickel anywhere. His wife and children were on relief. He said his craving for the habit-forming drug had become so strong that he would pull the doors off their hinges if in doing so it would bring him relief, and that he would steal or commit any crime to get the stuff. When he was thrown into jail for the "with­drawal" he thought he would die, and then wished he could. He had fever, cold chills, hot chills, with all sorts of muscular cramps. But he felt he was not out of it all and he would do anything for a cure. Between his tears he asked me if I knew of any power that would help him overcome his great weakness. What a privilege it was to point this man to Christ.

A Bible study class meets from time to time in the library of this institution, usually with every seat filled. We take our Bibles and the men are learning how to find their texts. A number of men are studying various Bible cor­respondence courses. One young man who had been brought up a Seventh-day Adventist has made his decision to return. A prisoner who was a businessman in New York said that he had been considering our faith for some time and that he and his wife were eager to learn more about us. They are now reading our literature. For the most part, however, these men have had very little to do with religion of any kind. They have come from broken homes where the name of God is never taken upon human lips except in profanity. Yet even these sense their need of some power to come into their lives, above what the State can give them, if the work of rehabili­tating them is to be successful. They are sin­ners before God and man but many are not sinners by choice. Some have hardly had a chance.

I think of one young man, twenty-four years old. It was his fourth imprisonment, this time for a motor vehicle theft. His own father he had never seen. The man who was supposed to be his stepfather, came home only when under the influence of alcohol and would curse at him and kick him around. His mother had to be away from the home much of the time to earn the living for the family. As a boy of twelve the care of the younger children was largely left to him. Sin and immorality pressed hard upon him. He had been arrested several times for contributing to the delinquency of minors, and other immoral charges. His mother did not have time to tell him anything about religion. He had been to church only twice in his life and that was when he was in the Army. On one of these occasions he stood up with others who were giving their hearts to Jesus. "But," he added, "I don't know the meaning of Jesus. No one ever told me."

The face of this young man, with lines of sin already drawn deeply upon it, still haunts me. Nobody had ever told him about Jesus. He wanted to know more about the Bible. He wanted to go straight, he told me, but it seemed as if a power from beneath was dragging him down. He feared he wouldn't be able to make it without help, and this fear was well sub­stantiated by the experiences of the past. Like 80 per cent of the others he, too, would prob­ably be a recidivist. All the punishment of the penal systems of the world, though the best of their kind, would never of themselves re­habilitate this man for the stern realities of life. Only the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ can bring sanity to this troubled mind.

In the light of these tremendous needs for spiritual ministry in our prisons, it is easy to un­derstand why our Lord placed the visiting of those in prisons among the six forms of min­istry expected of the righteous who would in­herit the kingdom of heaven. The other five were the feeding of the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, receiving the stranger, clothing the naked, and caring for the sick. As Seventh-day Adventists we have placed great emphasis on a ministry to the sick and the needy. We have our world welfare and medical work. But what are we doing to fulfill our obligations to those in prison? Prison visitation, according to the lesson given by our Lord in Matthew 25:35, 36 is equally important as a form of min­istry as is serving the hungry, naked, and sick. Institutional chaplains are needed in this field of service as well as in the others.

The following words spoken many years ago by the wise man, Solomon, are certainly ap­plicable to God's people today. "If thou forbear to deliver them that are drawn unto death, and those that are ready to be slain; if thou sayest, Behold, we knew it not; doth not he that pon­dereth the heart consider it? and he that keep­eth thy soul, doth not he know it? and shall not he render to every man according to his works?" (Prov. 24:11, 12). In harmony with the above, the servant of the Lord has told us: "His followers are not to feel themselves detached from the perishing world around them. They are a part of the great web of humanity; and heaven looks upon them as brothers to sinners as well as to saints. The fallen, the erring, and the sinful, Christ's love embraces; and every deed of kindness done to uplift a fallen soul, every act of mercy, is accepted as done to Him." —The Desire of Ages, p. 638.

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WILLIAM H. BERGHERM                                                            

July 1959

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