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Layman celebrates 30 years of teaching LifeWay curriculum to prison inmates

GREEN BAY, Wis. (BP)–Sunday afternoons in Packerland are normally spent glued to the television set or shoehorned into the hallowed confines of Lambeau Field, where boisterous cheeseheads venerate one of professional football’s most storied teams. But for more than 30 years, Robert Phillips has preferred another venue: the Green Bay Correctional Institution.

Phillips has spent every Sunday afternoon since the Vince Lombardi era in this maximum security prison teaching the Bible and sharing the curriculum of LifeWay Christian Resources. Scores of inmates have been won to Christ. Dozens more are on the waiting list to get into his class. One inmate softly calls him “a legend around here.” The 79-year-old layman just calls himself “fortunate to be serving the Lord.”

Phillips, a deacon at Calvary Baptist Church in DePere, Wis., got his first exposure to prison life in the late 1960s while servicing the facility’s heating and air conditioning systems. He struck up a friendship with the chaplain, who was having trouble answering inmates’ questions about non-Catholic doctrinal issues. The chaplain invited Phillips to help him, and he did so well the chaplain turned the class over to him. He’s been teaching ever since, while at the same time serving as an active church planter in northeastern Wisconsin.

The inmates come into the classroom single file, 15 in all – convicted murderers, child molesters, armed robbers – all of them now professing faith in Christ. They greet Phillips with a handshake, an embrace and a warm “Brother Bob.” While the afternoon sun may stream through the barred windows, reminding them they are captives, Phillips’ message is always one of liberation – forgiveness and redemption through faith in Jesus Christ.

“The biggest challenge is overcoming the belief that God can’t – or won’t – forgive them for what they’ve done,” Phillips said. “It takes time, patience and sharing the Word of God without compromise. Unfortunately, so many inmates are exposed to watered-down religion, designed to make them feel good about themselves, rather than the raw truth of Scripture that leads to redemption – and that’s what they really need.”

Phillips is prohibited from bringing literature into the prison, except for his Bible, but he always teaches the same LifeWay curriculum he uses to lead his Sunday School class at church. He’s currently using the Family Bible Study series. “I love the Herschel Hobbs commentary, too,” he said. “It helps prepare me for the tough questions.”

The questions come hard and fast – about capital punishment, forgiveness, baptism, eternal security, judgment and a host of other doctrinal issues. Phillips encourages, prods, challenges and corrects, always careful to build up his fellow believers in their faith.

Having led many inmates to Christ but finding no way to baptize them, Phillips lobbied for a baptismal tank, and the prison built one a decade ago. Chaplains Joe Baker and Mike Donovan immerse new believers during special services. Discipleship and service are key components of Phillips’ teaching. Some say God has called them to preach, and they pray and prepare for the day the state sets them free. One member of the class sends his tithe to Calvary Baptist Church in nearby DePere.

No one in class today was there 30 years ago when Phillips began. Most have been transferred to other institutions. Some have died in prison; others have been released. Follow-up is difficult because the state shares little information about its inmates. “Some of these men will never see freedom,” Phillips said, “but they are determined to be used by God wherever they are.”

So, how does teaching inmates compare with Sunday School? “There is a more intense spiritual hunger among inmates,” Phillips said. “There is a stronger sense of having sinned, and there is an unquenchable thirst for the Word of God.”

That’s what brings Phillips back every week, and keeps the waiting list long.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: NOT BARRED FROM MINISTRY.

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