by Admelyz Bueno
Paul tells us in Hebrews 13:3 to remember those in prison as if we were their fellow prisoners, and that instruction has been heeded by Florida Prison Ministries (FPM) for the past 32 years. Founded by Frank and Maxine Barton along with Malcolm Gordon and Hazel Gordon, FPM continues to be a vehicle that the Holy Spirit uses to reach the hearts of inmates around the state of Florida and beyond.
Florida Prison Ministries has a Spiritual Pen-Pal Program, a monthly printed newsletter for inmates, and a program called Love a Mother’s Baby (LAMB) for the children of inmates. FPM is also currently working on a new project titled Daddy Cares, focused on reaching 1,000 inmates per month in ten months. For this program, FPM purchased 10,000 Bible lessons to share with these inmates so they can minister to those around them in the prison and their families outside of prison. Around Florida, various churches do weekly or monthly visitations and Bible studies with the inmates. Once an inmate is released, FPM can provide halfway house options to those individuals.
The Spiritual Pen-Pal Program continues to grow each year. In 2020, FPM had 300 inmates request someone to write to them. Often, the demand for Pen Pals is high because many of the inmates feel alone and do not have much communication with family members or friends. The FPM spiritual pen pals write encouraging letters to the inmates, and the inmates are often vulnerable and share their entire lives with their pen pal. They are open to hearing about the love of Christ from these pen pals that write to them frequently.
The Regeneration Fellowship Newsletter is created monthly by Laura Leach. The inmates frequently write FPM, expressing thankfulness for these monthly newsletters. Each newsletter has an interactive format that allows inmates to respond with poems, songs, drawings, and other creative material to be included in the newsletters. They also send in questions about the Bible, prayer requests, and inquiries about Bible studies. The monthly newsletters include quotes, Bible verses, studies on the life of Christ, studies on prophecy, Christian cartoons, Bible trivia, and relevant information that changes each month.
As of 2020, FPM has held 30 training programs helping roughly1,000 people discover and analyze their skills and calling to be effective in their ministry. Over the last couple of years, FPM volunteers have given 2,329 Bible studies, worked with 2,429 inmates, driven 8,591 miles to these visitations, put in 715 hours, and distributed 1,848 pieces of literature. FPM works with several churches around the Florida Conference and other conferences to visit inmates and provide Bible studies at the various prisons. To manage the visitations around the state, area coordinators work with volunteers at each church involved in Prison Ministries. Cheryl Rilea is a Prison Ministries coordinator in the Ocala area, and she arranges for a church to visit one prison every week. Marion Correctional Institution receives visitors every Sabbath evening from 6:00–8:00 p.m., and the inmates look forward to these visits. The visit usually starts with prayer, and then the men have an opportunity to share about their week, their struggles, what they are grateful for, and what’s on their hearts. Song service follows, and the church groups usually bring a guitar and song booklets. Rilea shares that “the inmates sing with their soul, with passion and harmony; it is uplifting.” Bible studies are based on the Sabbath school quarterly so that the inmates can study the same topics given at church. As a result of these studies, a few gentlemen have requested The Great Controversy and Desire of Ages, and a church member brings the books to them or places them in the library to read and share. Unfortunately, there was a lockdown for some time due to the pandemic, and the inmates could not receive their much-anticipated visitations. Yet, when the group returned to visit in November of 2020, they were happily surprised to learn that Damien, an inmate that had become SDA, had continued Bible studies with his fellow inmates!
The Tomoka Correctional Institution also receives Bible study visits from members of the Deltona SDA, New Smyrna SDA, and the DeBary-Orange City SDA churches. Throughout their time at this facility, the inmates have completed several Bible study guides, including Voice of Prophecy lessons and Amazing Facts courses. Before the pandemic began, a group of 40 inmates were studying through the book of Daniel and were looking forward to completing the book of Revelation. Unfortunately, the church member leading these studies passed away due to a heart attack, and the group suffered the loss of other volunteers as well. Sylvia Woodcock shares that “we are continuing their work.” There was a lot of interest in these studies, and the church members have taken it upon themselves to continue the work that Christ commanded. One gentleman from their group wants to be baptized, and he is currently studying the fundamental beliefs as he prepares for baptism. Woodcock loves to remind the inmates that soon Jesus will come for each of us and “those gates will open, and you will walk out free.”
Florida Prison Ministries provides halfway homes through Shelter from the Storm, a transitional housing program that provides safe, stable housing for inmates that have been released. Shelter from the Storm halfway house was founded and is led by Jeffery Cobb in Gainesville, Florida, and has expanded to two transitional housing facilities for men and one for women. These halfway homes offer Bible studies, a 12-step recovery program, counseling, job development, vocational training, and necessary life skills — all within a Christ-centered environment. The individuals staying at these homes follow a schedule that includes a daily morning devotion, weekly Bible studies, and Sabbath worship. Individuals that have stayed at the halfway homes often express thankfulness and say, “I do not know what I would have done if it had not been for the shelter.” The individuals keep in touch even after they leave the shelter; the ladies at the Women’s facility affectionately call Lois Jones “Momma Lois.”
Lurlet Gordon is leading out a Christmas Behind Bars outreach for the Osceola County Jail. Gordon shares that for the past five years her team has organized 3,000 care packages for inmates. Due to the pandemic, Osceola County asked her for 1,000 care packages filled with candy canes, socks, and envelopes. The group will pack these at the Kissimmee SDA Church on December 4.
The goal of FPM is to reach every inmate, their families, and friends to give them the opportunity to know Jesus Christ and be saved. The Lord is coming soon, and we have to be united as one, with one mission, to finish the work.
For more information, please visit floridaprisonministries.org. To volunteer for Christmas Behind Bars at the Osceola County Jail, contact Lurlet Gordon at firstname.lastname@example.org.