Prison Not ‘Off Limits’ to Power of Gospel

Post a Comment » Written on September 9th, 2009     
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CHICAGO, IL (September 9, 2009) – This is the third in a five-part series on Criminal Justice and the Church. The author is John C. Notehelfer, a retired Evangelical Covenant Church pastor residing in Santa Barbara, California. He served as pastor of First Covenant Church in Oakland, California, from 1974-1987. He then was elected superintendent of the Pacific Southwest Conference, serving 1987-2000.

By John C. Notehelfer

“Imagine, John . . . the God whom we serve sent me into this awful place to reach out to the man who killed my brother . . . and I felt nothing but love and compassion for him” – Sunday Pearson.

There is a story behind this email, a story that confirms for me the biblical model of “effectual witnessing.” All of us as Christians do our share of witnessing by word and deed. But when is our sharing of Christ effectual? And when is no place off limits – even prison?

The three ingredients are these: a ready Christian who every day says “Lord, today I am available to you; a needy person who in his/her own way is crying out to God for help; and God, the great match-maker who brings them together in a timely manner.

“In the process, God made it very plain to her to contact the man who shot and killed her brother.”

Sunday Pearson’s brother was a policeman in Oakland, California, where I served as pastor. He was shot and killed in the line of duty. I received the call from Pastor Ted Smith in Sacramento that the family was without pastoral care – would I go and help out? I ended up being the one who walked the family and the police community through this painful ordeal.

A blind date? Yes! Effectual witnessing? Indeed!

Years go by. It is now Spring 2009 and Sunday Pearson and I reconnect. And she has a story to share that is worth retelling.

Retiring from federal service, she is now taking seminary classes and volunteering as a chaplain.  In the process, God made it very plain to her to contact the man who shot and killed her brother. That man is serving a life sentence in prison. With real hesitancy and some fear and trembling, she researched his whereabouts in the California prison system.

“I admit that I was scared,” she writes. “Even though I had what I needed to contact him, I found myself dragging my feet a little in the hopes that perhaps I was mistaken about everything. After all, I had long ago forgiven Fred – and wasn’t that enough? Nothing doing . . . God continued to persist.”

And Sunday was obedient – a ready Christian! Shortly before Christmas last year, she and Fred met in prison. “Never in my life have I witnessed a more broken human being than Fred Rogers,” she writes. “He was shaking so badly, John, that I placed my right hand into his right hand and braced his arm with my left. I whispered to him not to be afraid. I find it hard to adequately explain what I felt.”

What Sunday told him that afternoon was that long ago she had forgiven him for his misdeed. That she wanted him to know how much the Lord Jesus loves him in spite of all that had happened and was so ready and willing to forgive him and offer him a new way of life.

“I told him from the moment he accepted Jesus as his Savior, he no longer walks alone.”

This is what Sunday wrote later about that conversation: “God very (and I emphasize very) specifically gave me two messages to give to Fred. I gave them to him – the second one verbatim. The first message was that God loved Fred so much that he sent Jesus on his behalf. The second message is that ‘It is not too late to be the man that God designed you to be.’ I delivered both messages as instructed.”

Fred welcomed the Lord Jesus into his life before the visit was over.

Ready Christian – needy person – God’s timely appointments!

“When I got up to leave after our visit, I remember opening my arms and Fred opening his,” Sunday continues. “As we hugged one another, I told him that he was so special. He said that no one had ever told him that before.

“I don’t know how or if things in prison will change for Fred, but I told him from the moment he accepted Jesus as his Savior, he no longer walks alone.”

Editor’s note: During this year’s Annual Meeting, the Christian Action Commission presented a draft resolution on Criminal Justice that will be voted on during next year’s Annual Meeting. Local churches and individuals are encouraged to read and discuss the draft resolution and provide feedback to the commission no later than October 1. Click here to read the resolution. Feedback may be submitted by email to the commission by clicking here. For more information on the commission and its work, click here. To read previous articles in the series, select below:

Criminal Justice Awareness Week Is Here
How Does Criminal Justice System Treat Inmates?

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