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Evangelism training of prisoners becomes doubtful minister’s passion

SAYRE, Okla. (BP)–Ralph Chapman said he was not cut out for prison ministry.

“When those doors slammed behind me, it just did something to me,” said Chapman, director of missions in Oklahoma’s Beckham-Mills Baptist Association.

Then God changed his heart.

Now in his second semester teaching “Evangelism Explosion” (EE) to inmates at the North Fork Correctional Facility in Sayre, Chapman said he can’t wait to get to the prison every Monday.

When the prison was built about five years ago, Chapman was among 60-70 volunteers who participated in training required by the prison.

“I didn’t think I could be successful doing that,” Chapman said, “but Arthur Hallett, prison minister from Sarasota, Fla., and Paul Bettis, prison ministries consultant for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, came to see me.”

Knowing Chapman’s heart for evangelism, they approached him about taking Evangelism Explosion — a discipleship course which teaches born-again believers to share their faith in everyday situations — into the prison, which had never before been done in Oklahoma.

Chapman agreed to take the necessary training in Dallas and by the time he returned to Oklahoma, “My heart had been changed to prison ministry,” he said.

Chapman talked to the prison chaplain, who is also pastor of First Christian Church in Sayre, about doing EE with some of the inmates. The chaplain was familiar with the program and chose 10 inmates to begin working with Chapman in October 1999.

Partly because First Baptist Church, Sayre, has a ministry at the prison, there were inmates who had the leadership qualities to make EE successful in their lives, Chapman said.

The church has “a tremendous worship service there on Saturday nights,” Chapman noted. “And on Friday nights, laymen from the church teach ‘Experiencing God,’ ‘The Mind of Christ’ and ‘How to Share Jesus without Fear.'”

In Chapman’s first 13-week class were 10 inmates, who all graduated from the course, which consists of extensive classroom modules, memorization of Scripture, large amounts of reading and memorization of an evangelistic presentation. Chapman said he taped each man as he went through the presentation, with Chapman playing the role of the person won to Christ.

Chapman noted the men, all of whom are from Wisconsin, come from various backgrounds, but have phenomenal testimonies.

“Not many of us would go on a mission trip to Wisconsin, but Wisconsin inmates have come to us,” Chapman said. “There are 1,450 beds in the prison, and it is at full capacity.”

Now in his second semester of teaching EE, Chapman has 12 in the level one course and eight of the 10 first-timers, who graduated as certified trainers in an informal service in the prison chapel, in a level two course. The other two men in the first class have returned to Wisconsin awaiting release from prison.

After the first course, one man shared with Chapman, “You said we should share with anyone, any time, any way we could, didn’t you?”

The man went on to say his family wouldn’t have anything to do with him after he was sentenced to prison — no letters, no phone calls, nothing. But after learning to share his faith, he wrote to his son and gave him the gospel presentation in a letter. After two months of writing, his son wrote back and told his father he had trusted Jesus as his Savior.

“My son and I have discussed how we can work to get our family back together,” the man said.

“To me, that one incident is worth it all,” Chapman said.

But there are more.

One inmate said, “Even though I know Christ and know how to share my faith, I don’t have to wait until I get out of prison.” As a result of his witness, two inmates have trusted Christ.

Chapman said one inmate described to him his upbringing, and said his mother was a sick woman.

“Because I am the wrong color, my mother tried several times to kill me,” the inmate said.

He said his mother walked him out into traffic one time, but God spared him. Another time, because he was the wrong color, she washed him in bleach, and when that didn’t work, she threw him into a burning fireplace. He ended up with his father, who didn’t have time for him, and finally, his aunt became his guardian. Like many teens, with no supervision, he “got into drugs” and ended up in trouble.

“I never had anyone to love and care for me,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got to this prison that I saw people who loved me. For the first time, I know what Christian love is.”

Another inmate told Chapman he fought his transfer to Oklahoma in court, but now “I know why God sent me to Oklahoma — to meet him.”

Chapman said since North Fork is a minimum security facility, most of the men will be there from five to seven years, some as little as two.

“There are four levels in EE, and ironically, the last level is prison ministry,” Chapman said. “It is conceivable that some of these men can become certified as prison ministry specialists. Then they would have come full circle.”

Since EE is training the inmates to train others, and all will be released to their communities, “what we’re doing here could have a real impact on society,” Chapman said.

Because of the success of the EE program in Sayre, there is a request to start the classes at the Oklahoma State Reformatory in Granite. Terry Beals, pastor at Magnolia Baptist Church in the Beckham-Mills Baptist Association, has been asked to do this.

“It has been great to partner with the local church, our association and the state convention in this project,” Chapman said, noting that Oklahoma Baptists’ Edna McMillan Offering for State Missions paid for his EE training and pays $50 per student for materials.

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  • Dana Williamson