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She puts her spiritual gifts to use with captive audience

MOORE, Okla. (BP)–Polly Ward goes to prison every Monday night.

It’s not because she committed a crime, but because she has a commitment.

Ward admits when she was told she would be good at prison ministry, she was mortified.

“I told my husband I knew nothing about prisons, nor anyone in them,” Ward said. “His nonchalant reply was, ‘Why would you be upset? You’d have a captive audience.'”

Ward’s journey into prison ministry began when she enrolled in a discipleship course on spiritual gifts at First Baptist Church, Moore, Okla.

“I already knew what my spiritual gifts were,” Ward said, “but I guess I thought, or hoped, they might change.”

Her gifts, she said, are prophecy, exhortation and mercy, and since prophecy and exhortation are very outspoken, it’s hard for a woman to find a place to serve under authority with those spiritual gifts.

“Out of approximately 15 women in the class, I was the only one with these gifts,” she said. “I was feeling sorry for myself when the pastor’s wife, who was teaching the class, said I would be excellent in prison ministry.”

Ward said over the next couple of years, she volunteered for all sorts of jobs at church, but kept seeing things, even commercials on TV, that led her to think about women in prison.

“And through our pastor’s messages, I saw that Jesus didn’t minister inside the four walls of the church,” she said.

She said she had no idea what she would do in prison, and had never heard of anyone going into a prison to minister. But several years ago she proceeded to call Don Duncan, the chaplain at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in Oklahoma City and said, “God is sort of directing me to work in prison.”

She told the chaplain she had worked in literacy missions and wondered if that experience could be put to use.

The chaplain said a woman had just come to him telling him she would never go back to Bible study because she was called on to read, and couldn’t.

“I’ve been praying for a volunteer to teach literacy courses,” he told Ward.

Thus the prison doors swung open, and Polly Ward entered into a ministry of love and compassion, learning a lot about prisons and those incarcerated there.

“One thing about prison is you have to adjust to change,” she said. “Rules and circumstances change daily.”

She noted some of the requirements for working in a prison ministry entail, first of all, being a born-again Christian, and you should not go without your spouse’s approval.

She said Mabel Bassett is a prison for any woman who has any kind of medical problem, so volunteer workers must have regular tuberculosis tests, plus an FBI check, orientations, agree to follow the rules, and must have two badges — one to turn in at the door and the other to wear while in the facility.

Ward went through literacy training with Prison Fellowship, but says literacy is more than teaching prisoners to read and write.

“It is modeling positive behavior and being a friend they may not have ever had who doesn’t judge them harshly,” she said. “I can’t say we go in and do just one thing. We have to minister to their needs.”

But, she added, “Anytime you want to read God’s Word, he will help you learn.”

Ward, who now is a member of Woodland Baptist Church, Newcastle, explained that Oklahoma has more women in prison that any other state, they are there longer and have more harsh sentences — and it costs $40 a day to incarcerate one person in Oklahoma.

“The average age at Mabel Bassett is 35, and [the] education level is fifth grade,” she said. “Most of the women have left children who either went to live with relatives or are in Department of Human Services custody.”

A profile from Mabel Bassett shows 85 percent of its constituency is between the ages of 21 and 45, with 3.3 percent below age 21 and 3.3 percent over the age of 56. Fifty-three percent are white, 35 percent black, 7 percent Indian and 2 percent Hispanic. The number one offense is murder, followed by drug offenses, robbery, assault and fraud, with the population split about 50/50 in violent and nonviolent crimes.

Ward said all of the prisoners she works with are Christians, and most say prison is the best thing that happened to them because it stopped them from doing what they were doing and got them on the right track.

Ward is teaching the inmates to read and write through Bible classes, mostly studies by noted author and Bible teacher Beth Moore.

Ward said Satan “doesn’t want us to go into places of darkness — and prisons are areas of darkness.”

“I remember the day we were to go to the prison for the first time, there was a driving rainstorm, and on the front page of the daily paper that day was a picture titled ‘Nightmare Alley,’ about road construction exactly where we were going,” Ward said.

But she said she has never felt threatened or afraid.

“If we as believers don’t do what we are called to do, we will never see a decrease in the prison population,” Ward said, noting generational incarceration keeps the cycle going.

Ward said with an average of 30 babies born to inmates each year, she feels led to give each baby a Bible suitable for the caregiver to read to the baby.

“I would like to see a tape ministry for inmates where mothers record stories to play for their children,” Ward said.

She said 80 percent of the inmates have children, meaning the main caregiver has been taken away.

“The children suffer when they are deprived of their mothers,” she said. “They grow up angry and repeat the problems, and society pays.”

Ward noted that one of the satisfactions of prison ministries is seeing the changes in the women.

“One of the girls we worked with is now in fulltime ministry,” Ward said. “She was first director of a halfway house and now is directing youth programs for three Methodist churches.”

She said inmates love to get mail, and that can be a ministry. Sending birthday cards and prayergrams is visible proof that someone cares. Ward added that there is a long waiting list for mentors for the inmates.

“This is a one-on-one ministry where you model Christian behavior and coach, encourage, guide and help,” Ward said. “I would like to see more women get involved in prison ministry instead of staying in church and doing Bible studies. We have to go where the hurting people are.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: POLLY GOES TO PRISON.

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  • Dana Williamson