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NAMB linking churches, chaplains in effort to impact U.S. prisons

JACKSON, La. (BP)–It’s not every day that prisoners at Dixon Correctional Institute (DCI) enjoy jambalaya under the huge oak tree on the prison grounds, much less a relaxing two-hour outdoor program of Christian humor, entertainment and inspiration.

But that is just the idea with Operation Starting Line, a national effort by a variety of evangelical Christian groups to reach out to the broader prison population — those who wouldn’t likely attend chapel meetings and Bible studies that characterize the Christian presence in most correctional institutions.

“Our intent is to try to touch people who aren’t normally touched in the prison,” said Gary Pearce, director of chaplaincy for DCI and a Southern Baptist.

The Dixon effort, sponsored by the North American Mission Board, was just one leg of a 10-day blitz of Louisiana prisons in late September characteristic of the Operation Starting Line strategy.

The ministry networks chaplains, volunteers and churches to help evangelize and disciple inmates at a time when they are most receptive to spiritual change, said Ken Ellis, NAMB’s chaplaincy associate who coordinates the agency’s involvement in Operation Starting Line.

“Southern Baptists, with our tremendous network of churches and chaplains, … can pool those resources so these men and women won’t fall through the cracks when they come out of the criminal justice system,” Ellis said.

“It is amazing how often major initiatives of the Lord throughout Scripture occurred in prisons,” added NAMB President Robert E. “Bob” Reccord, who spoke to prisoners the day before at another unit at Dixon. “Wouldn’t it be just like God to start the next Great Awakening in the context of the prison? I thank God Southern Baptists are going where the need is to proclaim the One who is the answer to every need.”

The program at Dixon was fairly typical of Operation Starting Line events. A master of ceremonies introduces a succession of speakers and musical artists, each of whom blends their talents with a word of testimony or exhortation.

“DCI! Yeah!” cheered Christian comedian Thor Ramsey as he launched into a monologue tuned for the audience. “I’m glad to be here. I got busted, and this is my community service.”

Christian singer Eddie Middleton sang a medley of Motown favorites, with lyrics revamped to reflect the gospel: “Jesus, I need your lovin’. Got to have all your lovin’.”

Vocalist Matt Seward of Columbus, Ohio, and an Operation Starting Line veteran, punctuated his music to reiterate the same theme, “We’ve been in about five other states just to tell you one thing. God loves you, and he has a plan for your life.”

The final speaker was John Yarbrough, vice president of evangelism for the North American Mission Board, who brought the purpose of the event to a focus.

“The greatest thing we can tell you today is not how much talent these guys have…. It’s not what they do, it’s who they know,” he said before launching into several illustrations to communicate the truth of Christ.

He told of his own experience assembling a ride-on toy for his daughter, and how he discovered too late that he had irreversibly put the wheels on backward.

“Have you ever gotten the wheels on wrong and looked in the instruction book and found out it is too late?” he said.

And in a direct illustration of God’s sacrifice, he told of how his brother took the punishment that only he deserved.

“My brother said, ‘Don’t spank Johnny. Spank me instead,'” Yarbrough related. “What Jesus did is he looked up at this father and said, ‘Don’t take Johnny. Take me instead.'”

By the end of the program many had drifted away, but most of those who remained responded. They sat on the ground filling out cards describing how God had dealt with them, talked with volunteer counselors and made commitments to God. Twelve recorded first-time professions of faith in Christ.

After the event, Yarbrough noted he hopes Southern Baptists will “jump on board” with the effort both as volunteers and as part of the long-term follow-up network.

“As a pastor I had people who would go to prison and share their faith on a one-to-one basis for the first time in their lives,” Yarbrough said. “And they turned out to be some of my greatest soul-winners. When they left the prison they would go and talk to their grocery clerk, or their neighbor, or their cousin, because they had been liberated to share their faith in an environment that was so conducive to the gospel.

“It gets to be addictive to pray with people and see people saved,” he added. “And this is just another shot of adrenalin in the process of putting soul-winners on point day by day in their life.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: WITNESS VIA SONG, STARTING LINE HUMOR and PRISON WITNESS.

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  • James Dotson