One Sunday four years ago, we were sitting in Small Group and a lady walks in and says, “Hey, we need some people to volunteer or to consider being a part of this ministry up at the Birmingham City Jail.” So I talked to her afterward, went to the BCJ, and I’ve been volunteering there ever since. I love it. Doing this type of ministry is really boots-on-the-ground in a hard place. We’re planting seeds.
This ministry, is, I think, best characterized as “simple.” We don’t have glossy promo materials or catchy slogans or even, for that matter, a “formal” ministry. We just share a Spirit-compelled drive and desire to comfort the inmates with Christ’s Love and challenge them with His command to repent and believe the gospel.
We’ve just got a spectacular set of people on our team. They’re all very sensitive to the Spirit and are able to bring in various messages and relate to different things. We don’t preach really, and we don’t have a curriculum, but we do prepare what we are going to share each week. We often have a handout, and it’s usually Scripture, and it’s usually based on some particular theme. We want to tie things back to the Word. The Word saves. The Word is living and active, a two-edged sword. We all have that conviction.
We want to have more of a conversation and interaction with the folks that come. We want to share what God is doing in our own life. And that’s the best way to share because you’re sharing from who you are in Christ, and the Spirit’s going to use it the way He wants to use it. And we see a lot of the time when we do this, it’s clear God is moving—His spirit is moving forward with them. Now, it may take twenty-five more steps before He grants conversion, but He is moving them forward. It’s not about us. It is about what God would do for those who are the last, the lost, and the least.
We share with both men and women in the prison. We didn’t use to have men go in with the ladies, but a couple of years ago one of the women on our team who was supposed to give the presentation wasn’t going to be able to show up, and I happened to be there. So one of our teammates said, “Ward, can you come in and share?” So I did that, and she commented afterward, “Ward, something extraordinary happened.” She said, “I realized something tonight.” She says, “Most of these women have never seen a godly man. We need to do this regularly.” And we do.
As a team, we want to share with the inmates about why we’re here. Telling them, “We’re here because of love. And the Bible defines love in a different way. ‘This is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us,’ and ‘while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.’ So we, though it’s a small sacrifice in comparison, give up TV on Tuesday nights, or time with our families on Tuesday nights, or time apart from hard work on a Tuesday night to come here because we love you. And that kind of love is true love. It’s a truth that’s not agenda-driven. We’re not trying to get you to do or be something. We’re trying to tell you, and present to you, that God loves you. And He loves you so much that He sent His son, and He loves you so much that He would send people here that aren’t trying to manipulate you in some way. But to show you that there is a way to live in this world that is the right way, where there’s great joy, and great overcoming even though you will struggle, as we all do, with sins for the rest of your life.” And that message resonates.
We do this work at the BCJ under the supervision of the Community Services Division of the BPD in a program they’ve named “VIPS” – Volunteers In Public Service. What is absolutely amazing about this is the outspoken support and endorsement we have from Chief Roper and the Officers who assist us ... they see Jesus as the only true hope for the prisoners they manage! It really is quite extraordinary to have public offcials provide such encouragement.
Be that as it may, we also have a clear view of the boundaries of our ministry: We’re seed planters. The inmates are mostly short-term and, with only one or two exceptions in my four years of experience doing this, none of them has reconnected with us outside the BCJ after they are released. We do give them a P.O. Box and encourage them to write but cannot give them our last names or personal info like phone numbers or home addresses. Furthermore, though we regularly get requests for all
kinds of things (clothing, hygiene items, a ride when released, etc.), we clearly see we’d become spread too thin and compromise our Tuesday night witness if we tried, personally or as a team, to meet the huge list of needs most of these precious people have. So, we stay focused and refer them to others (such as WorkFaith Birmingham).
We are looking for more people to join our team in this ministry of being seed planters, sharing with the inmates at the BCJ. Part of the context for me and why I was drawn to this is that I did pastor churches so I love to minister to people, but I know that is not the case for most of us. But what we do is not complex. If someone says, “Well, I’ve never prepared a lesson before.” I encourage them to come in and just be an assistant to listen to the speaking. And after a month or so they usually say, “Oh. I can do that.”
I’ll say this much—I can’t think of anybody that’s been on our team that hasn’t said, “I love it.” These inmates are real people that you can’t help but well up with tears about the more you learn about them and know their stories. God has created us in His image, and to see the damage of sin on His image bearers just breaks your heart. And by faith, you know that God can restore the years the locusts have eaten. And you want so desperately to have that deliverance for these folks. So you just love them. And that’s what we go and do. Love makes it easy.
Ward Slager and his wife, Chris, have been members of Brook Hills since 2012. They joined after moving to AL from east TN where Ward served as a pastor in several churches. Ward is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv) and UMass (MSME). Currently, he customizes business software for an engineering firm, working from their home “in the woods, on a lake” in rural Shelby County. Besides the jail ministry, Ward enjoys devotional writing (www.devoted2u. org), sharing the gospel in the checkout line at Walmart and leading Wednesday night Bible Study at Somerby retirement center. His greatest joy, though, is Chris ... as Ward will tell you, she is his Hero, not only as “Nana” to their three grandchildren, but also as a nurse at Children’s of AL where her CVICU work includes caring for infants having heart transplants. Wow. Yup, she’s de nitely a hero!
If you would like more information about getting involved with the Birmingham City Jail ministry, visit our City Ministries page HERE.