Jail ministry breaks inmates' spiritual shackles
By LAUREN URTEL
Florida Baptist Convention
Published August 30, 2007
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OCALA (FBC)—Inmates Steven Ponder and Nathanial Brown moved through the halls of the Marion County Jail, expressing the joy of the Lord in the midst of their circumstances.
Their changed lives serve as a testimony to the transforming power of Jesus Christ found through the jail's chaplaincy ministry.
"God is helping me realize that I can't keep continuing to live like I was living before when I was out," said Ponder, who was released from jail in June. He credits the jail's regular church services, Baptist study materials and the Christian-based 12-step recovery program for bringing Christ to the forefront of his life.
FBC photo by Ken Touchton
Chaplain Bob Hart ministers to prisoners at the Marion County Jail through funding from the Maguire State Mission Offering.
"I know God is real, He is real in my life," said Ponder. "I'm going home this Thursday and I'm planning to keep God first."
"God is working a miracle for me," added Brown. "I got my family back. Got me on the right track."
On any given day, chaplains at the Marion County Sheriff's Department are called to minister to over 2,000 prisoners in the county jail and over 900 county deputies and corrections officers. These men, women and youth face difficult situations daily, both from behind bars and outside of them.
Hope comes in the form of Kingdom-minded ministers and volunteers who work, at the request of Sheriff Ed Dean, to meet the spiritual needs of this community.
When an officer is injured or killed, the dedicated chaplains pray with the family. When an inmate needs someone to listen, chaplains offer faithful counsel. Wherever they are called, the men and women who serve as chaplains make God's presence felt.
In 1980, Bob Hart came to Marion County as a corrections officer, believing that he was answering God's call. After retirement, he remained there as an assistant chaplain. "My wife and I knew God still had a mission for us in Ocala," said Hart.
He ministers in the jail to "people making bad choices who really never had a clue about Jesus Christ.
"Inmates look at me and say 'here is a guy who enforces the law but who shows love' and that makes a difference," said Hart.
The jail ministry program receives aid annually from the Maguire State Mission Offering. Through this fund, the Florida Baptist Convention supplies the Chaplain's office with salvation tracks, Bible study materials, 500 Bibles a month and specialized ministry training. "In this facility we have tried to make living the Christian life easy. We have all the materials laid out," he said as he displayed the Southern Baptist literature and devotionals.
When prisoners accept Christ into their life they are encouraged to become actively involved in ministry. "Many times inmates immediately begin witnessing to other inmates," said Hart.
As he looked to the Maguire State Mission Offering Week of Prayer for state missions, Hart said, "We need strong prayers for our chaplains. We need prayers for the officers, for their minds, hearts and safety. They are here 12 hours a day just like the inmates. We also need prayers for the inmates, that the seed is planted, that they grow into Christians."
With the large number of those in need, the chaplain's office relies on the dedication of local volunteers to work alongside them.
Curt Doroban has been leading worship services and ministering to prisoners in the county lockdown as a volunteer with the chaplain's office since 2001. "God has prepared the hearts of these men and we come to encourage and lift them up," said Doroban. "These men have nothing to do and, without guidance, all sorts of things can creep in. Satan is alive and well in the judicial system."
Hart believes their ministry of transformation assists in reducing crime of second and third offenders. Without this ministry, he said, "there would not be enough facilities to hold them all."