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Purpose-Driven prison church forms amid hostility & dangers

JAMESTOWN, Calif. (BP)–If you were to walk onto “the yard” at the Sierra Conservation Center, a prison in Jamestown, Calif., you would soon notice the standard foot attire. No one dares go to the yard without his prison boots. Since the possibility of a fight between rival gangs and ethnic groups breaking out at any moment is high, every prisoner needs his their boots for extra mobility and protection. In fact, a prisoner who walks out without his boots might be disciplined by those in his gang.

So when fellow inmate Danny Duchene told a gathering of a couple hundred prisoners on the yard to take off their boots, saying, “You are standing on holy ground,” you could have heard a pin drop. Even the guys leaning on the fence, watching the church service from a distance were surprised.

But in a show of unity and courage, more than 100 men took off their shoes in unison, telling all the other prisoners that this was God’s yard.

“When they did that, they actually did two things: Certainly they did it because they were standing on holy ground,” said George Stephens, a volunteer from Crossroads Church in Copperopolis, Calif. “But they were also saying that they were done with the fighting and done with the rumbling.”

On that same day, Duchene and the other church leaders — all inmates — officially named and dedicated the Sierra Christian Center, their small nondenominational church in the prison’s medium-security section.

“We declare this to be a Purpose-Driven church,” Duchene prayed. “We declare the purpose of worship. We declare the purpose of fellowship. We declare the purpose of maturity. We declare the purpose of ministry. We declare the purpose of evangelism.”

In the past four to five months, powerful days like this have become commonplace in the prison as this small flock has made an almost complete transition to Saddleback’s Purpose-Driven Church model of ministry.

After going through 40 Days of Purpose, a national campaign that began at Saddleback in the fall of 2002, the Sierra Christian Center almost doubled its attendance. The number of prisoners in small group Bible studies grew from around 20 to more than 150 in just a few months. Prisoners from different social and ethnic groups have begun worshiping together — a monumental breakthrough in a prison system often plagued by racial violence.

Now their small church, from inside prison walls, has even started worship services that are friendly to non-believers, including smiling greeters and plenty of greenery.

Most importantly, stories of prisoners beginning personal relationships with Jesus Christ seem to be as commonplace as ones detailing fights on the yard.

“Many prisoners live in the meantime; they are always waiting until they get out to really start living,” said Saddleback missions pastor Steve Rutenbar, who has been to the prison twice since they started the 40 Days campaign.

“That is not the approach of the guys at the Sierra Christian Center. They accept that they are here, that their mistakes have led them to this place of life. But they are not in waiting mode. They are serving one another. They are deep in prayer and studying God’s Word together. They are fellowshipping with each other and holding each other up. That model will serve them well when they get out of prison.”

Saddleback’s senior pastor, Rick Warren, and several other Saddleback pastors also have visited the prison to encourage the Sierra Christian Center’s continued growth after their 40 Days of Purpose campaign. The church is currently going through Warren’s eight-week “Road to Recovery” sermon series in preparing for starting Celebrate Recovery, Saddleback’s biblical 12-step recovery program.

This journey of miracles began when Hector Lozano, who had been through 40 Days of Purpose with Stephens at their home church in Copperopolis in the fall of 2002, introduced one of the prisoners (who had formerly been a pastor) to Warren’s book, “The Purpose-Driven Life.” The prisoner loved it and so did others at Sierra Christian Center. It didn’t take long for the prisoners to suggest joining the 40 Days campaign that had fanned across the country.

“I was thinking, ‘Man, do these guys know what they’re getting into?'” Lozano said, says, noting that the campaign has several components and often needs a team of volunteers to make it run efficiently. Having served as the small group coordinator at his own church during the campaign, he knew there was a significant time commitment to the program.

But it wasn’t just a question of manpower. The church still had to figure out how to pay for the campaign, get hardcover books into the prison (which typically isn’t allowed) and, of course, entice prisoners to give up 40 days for a quest to find the biblical meaning of life.

One by one God solved all three problems. Saddleback provided all of the materials for free. The prison’s warden didn’t hesitate to approve the request to bring in hard cover Purpose-Driven Life books.

And much to everyone’s surprise, the prisoners seemed to take to the campaign from the start. With many of the prisoners looking to do something a little different, a number signed up just to liven up their week a bit. By the time 40 Days of Purpose was finished, 150 prisoners were involved in small groups. Many of the prisoners had accepted Christ at a high personal cost to themselves.

“They have to leave their gangs when they come to Christ,” Stephens said. “They always say, ‘Blood in, blood out,’ when they talk about their conversion experience. They’ll have a price extracted from them when they accept Christ.”

Even prisoners who didn’t come to 40 Days of Purpose for the right reasons came to Christ. Take “Red” Johnson, for example, who was looking to please a friend and his parole board when he signed up for 40 Days of Purpose. But God had other plans. Before Johnson knew it, he had been pegged as a small group leader, when at the time he didn’t even have a personal relationship with Christ. As the campaign continued, Johnson’s heart began to soften. Finally, he accepted Christ and was baptized on the final week of 40 Days of Purpose, Celebration Sunday, by Saddleback’s Rutenbar.

“When I first came to 40 Days of Purpose, I thought I was pleasing my friend, Mario,” Johnson told more than 200 prisoners recently during a church service on the “yard.” “But it was to please God!”

Since the end of 40 Days of Purpose, the change in Johnson’s life has been so apparent to everyone that the parole board has begun to take steps toward paroling him sometime in the near future.

“Many of these guys started out in the campaign just because they wanted to try something different,” Lozano said. “What they found was a group of people who cared about one another, as opposed to the yard where no one cares about you. … It became a pretty easy choice.”

The other surprising element of the campaign happened as ethnic groups came together to worship and fellowship, almost unheard of in prison. During the campaign, six different prisoners, from six different ethnic groups preached the sermons that typically accompany 40 Days of Purpose.

In the last few months, the Christians have been playing together on the only prison-wide interracial softball team. Some Christians have even been attacked for their willingness to cross gang lines to play.

Not only did the interracial preaching schedule help unite different races within the prison, but it gave many of them the opportunity to be used in ministry for the first time.

“This campaign really empowered the prisoners to do ministry,” Stephens said. “Some of these guys came away excited, knowing that they could be used by the Lord in ministry.”

God used many of the prisoners during the campaign, including Deschenes, who has been locked up most of his adult life. Now he serves as a leader of the Sierra Christian Center. Since the 40 Days of Purpose campaign, he now sees a bigger vision for what God can do in the prison.

“We feel that God has entrusted us with something here,” Deschenes said. “God has called us to a very special work on this yard. This is our land. This is our vineyard that God has given us to work in. We are going to take what God has given us here, the message of The Purpose-Driven Life and share it with everyone on this yard. … If God can do it here, He can do it anywhere. It’s the ageless Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CELEBRATION IN ‘THE YARD’ and PRISONERS’ PRAYER.

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  • Tobin Perry