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Ministry to the 'fourth world'

Alvin Worthley has been a prison chaplain at institutions across the United States, and most recently was assistant chaplaincy administrator for the Federal Bureau of Prisons in Washington, D.C., before becoming correctional ministries representative at the Assemblies of God Headquarters in Springfield, Mo. Worthley spoke recently with Joel Kilpatrick, an associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

Evangel: Give us some statistics on the inmate population in the United States.

Worthley: In 1999, we passed the 2 million mark in the overall inmate population in the United States. This country incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world. We also have more victims of crime who need ministry. Those who are really interested in reaching the United States today cannot ignore the incarcerated population.

Evangel: What challenges do inmates face when they are released from prison?

Worthley: The men who have a conversion experience and are growing in Christ have a difficult time transitioning to local churches. Churches, like society at large, can be afraid of having ex-offenders as part of the congregation. There’s a misunderstanding of who they are. They lump them all as being the worst offenders.

The inmates themselves are often afraid of the local churches. They are not like the churches inside the prison. They don’t get the fellowship. It’s difficult for them to develop relationships. We need to bridge that gap.

Prisoners need relationships with people in the outside community to bring some normalcy to the religious experience inside the jail. Volunteers are great at that.

Evangel: Tell us about your new duties.

Worthley: I will be working with jails at all levels and with districts to establish district-wide volunteer programs. I anticipate working with local churches to develop programs to assimilate ex-offenders into the life of the church. That’s been a missing link in prison ministry. Some churches have stepped forward, but not on a systematic basis.

As a department, we want to assist churches in getting involved in what we call ministry to the "fourth world." Restorative justice has been a key term in recent years; making people productive people, good neighbors. The church offers the best way to make that happen, but it takes volunteers. We can work with churches to develop programs that work for the ex-offender and the church.

The government is asking faith-based groups to be involved. In Texas, for example, there is a whole unit with its own warden that is working with inmates in a Christian environment. The statistics are very good that those going through the program are not going back to prison at the same rate most prisoners do. This makes it cost-effective for the government to have churches involved.

Churches that want to be involved should contact the chaplaincy office. There is also a great need for chaplains who can work as full-time employees. There is a great need for individuals who are willing to make a one-year commitment to mentor ex-offenders for several hours a week to bring them into the church and society. We are looking for those who are willing to be called alongside these people.

Evangel: Talk about how to volunteer in prison ministry.

Worthley: Volunteers need to understand how important it is to go through a training program. They need to acclimate themselves to a different culture. There are many restrictions placed on private individuals who want to go inside an institution. There are freedom-of-information regulations and rules on how to relate to inmates. Volunteers need to have a call and a commitment to be part of the volunteer program. It’s not as difficult as people think, but they need to go through the process. It’s different for people who want to go in once a week for a Bible study than for those who want to go in every day for more in-depth relationships. Just being there is more important than what a volunteer says. Volunteers are needed to show that living a Christian life is possible on the outside.

Two of the fastest-growing areas are female and juvenile offenders. Juvenile crimes are much more violent. Juveniles are harder to reach. They have no sense of values. The women do respond to the gospel and are hungry for mentorship. Many juveniles haven’t had the parenting they should have. Many come from broken homes and long for love and attention and someone to show them the right way and how to live the gospel.

 

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