Hope Behind Bars: Discipleship in Prison

“Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering” Hebrews 13:3 (NIV).

It was New Year’s Eve of 2016 when Navigator Craig Parker first stepped foot in the Suffolk County Jail in downtown Boston to help lead an inmate Bible study. The jail was about 300 yards from TD Garden, the arena where the Boston Celtics play. As he walked past the busy sports arena, he remembers hearing the distant sounds of another basketball game — the inmates playing within the caged jail next door.

Two men on a web call, one holding a phone in prison.
Michael left and Craig right during a video call Craig has been a godsend in my life Michael says

Now, over seven years later, leading prison ministry initiatives has become one of the core passions of Craig’s life and ministry. This has included hosting an online micro church every Sunday on incarceration and injustice and launching the Boston Reentry Collaborative — a network of churches serving those affected by incarceration as they reenter society.

The Navigator City Director for Boston and part of the Navigators I:58 (Isaiah 58) Prison Ministry Network, Craig has seen firsthand how mentoring inmates can be transformative, having walked with men in the highs and lows of their journeys and personal walks with the Lord — both in and out of prison.

One of the men Craig meets with is Michael, a believer who spreads the gospel in prison as he serves his life sentence in MCI-Shirley, a state prison in Massachusetts.

A Passion for Discipleship in Prison

When Michael was 21-years-old, he was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Incarcerated for the first time in his life, he felt hopeless and was planning to take his own life when another inmate invited him to attend a church service. In the service, the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” started to play, and it struck a chord in Michael’s heart.

“I started weeping bitterly,” Michael recounts. “It was at that point that God intervened in my life, and he filled me with a peace that I can’t explain. So my faith is something that literally saved my life.” 

That church service in December of 1991 started a faith journey for Michael that has carried him throughout his 32 years in prison. Today, Michael is a core leader of MCI-Shirley’s chapel community and discipleship groups. He has dedicated his life to sharing the gospel and discipling other inmates, often building relationships through the prison workout program he teaches called “Transforming the Temple.”

“I love meeting with these men one on one, where I can really spend time with them, disciple them, and build the things of God into their life,” Michael says. “God has used the fitness arena for me to reach guys I normally wouldn’t be able to reach.”

Michael originally met Craig a year and a half ago when Craig’s church was attending a chapel at MCI-Shirley. Since then, Michael and Craig interact weekly through phone calls, letters, and visits. While Michael never had someone disciple him at the beginning of his faith, Craig now diligently walks alongside him in mentorship, supplying him with spiritual encouragement and Navigator resources to help Michael disciple other inmates more effectively.

“I often wonder what I have to do to improve how I disciple these men,” Michael says, “so having the information I’m getting from The Navigators is helping me to become better in the ministry God has called me to do. I told Craig I want to be the first person in prison to be a Navigator.”

Having a man like Craig support and invest in him from the outside has had a meaningful impact on Michael’s life and ministry. “I’m really thankful that God placed Craig in my life,” he says. “He’s done tremendous work in my life, and he’s helped me grow in my walk with Christ and feel value again.”

How Outside Support Impacts Inmates

Michael is just one of over 1.8 million people who are incarcerated in the U.S. Though 90 percent of inmates will be released at some point in their lives, most are likely to return to prison if they lack a support system in the outside world.

“In our state alone, there are 13,000 people incarcerated, and about 2,000 of them are released into the Boston area every year,” Craig explains. “The question is, what kind of citizens do we want them to be — and how can we walk alongside them? Our vision is to mobilize more volunteers to walk alongside those who are incarcerated — to awaken, educate, and engage the church on a wider scale.”

Whether it’s something as small as writing letters to inmates or as large as committing to be a consistent mentor, Craig encourages churches to meet inmates while they are incarcerated and continue to support them as they reenter into society, connecting them to service providers as well as a community of believers.

Craig has lived this example through his mentorship of a man named Daniel, whom Craig met in prison and helped get into a Christian residential program for his parole called Place of Promise. “I’ve seen Daniel take pride in who he is and his work for the first time,” Craig explains. “This is a man who has been in prison for 31 years, and I’ve seen true transformation happening.”

For Michael, who has watched numerous inmates be released and return to prison over the years, the work Craig is doing isn’t just important — it’s vital in order for these men and women to successfully leave the prison system once and for all. “To know that there’s a community of people who love you and find value in you, who say, ‘We’re family, we’re here for you, we’re here with you,’ is so important,” he says.

How the Gospel Transforms Lives

For many, prison is a place that is entirely devoid of hope. “I’ve seen men who are absolutely broken at their worst,” Craig explains. “Their hope is completely stripped away from them.”

However, through men like Michael, prison can be a place where the light of the gospel can shine with brilliant clarity. “You’ve never heard the gospel proclaimed until you’ve heard it from someone like Michael,” Craig reflects, “who can say, ‘I was convicted of murder a long time ago. But that’s not who I am. And I want to tell you about God’s love and forgiveness and care.’ It puts the gospel in a whole different light for me.”

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV) says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”

Through supportive believers like Craig and dedicated disciplemakers like Michael, the hope of the gospel is alive and making new hearts in the darkest of prison systems. Join us in praying for the prison ministry in Boston, that the Lord will continue to transform the lives of inmates and inspire believers to come alongside those who are incarcerated to fight with them for a better life.



Discipleship Tip:

Michael seeks opportunities to disciple the men that are already around him. Look around — who is currently in your circles that you can disciple? Think about how you can intentionally deepen your relationships or spark a conversation with someone new!


Alongsiders: Life-to-life Discipleship

Just like Michael and Craig do Life-to-life® discipleship within prisons, you can learn how to become an “alongsider” too — someone who’s committed to making disciples one conversation and relationship at a time. Explore this tool that can help you come alongside those around you today!

Comments:

  1. Craig this is great and I too was in prison and have been home for 22 years and I serve in Chicago. We have a prison ministry here called Bridge to Freedom that focuses mainly on housing men and women who come home from prison. We’ve been doing this for about 16 years now and I was previously a part of I-58 nevertheless I am now serving in D4L. I love what you all are doing in Boston and I am going to make sure that I get to Boston and get to spend time with y’all

  2. Wow, isn’t our GOD an Awesome GOD? I’m very involved with the KAIROS Prison ministry and we have seen the wonderful transformation that even with the hardest inmate, God broke through.

  3. Minus COVID time, I’ve been going in since 2017. It is a ministry of presence. There are many believers in our prisons who just need to have their faith grown and encouraged. Find a ministry that is established and go!

  4. I would like to minister to black women behind bars. I have no money and no car. “How do I get started??”

  5. Yes, prison is a dark place, filled with hopelessness. It is a place that desperately needs the Light and Hope of Jesus.
    I have a county jail ministry and was hoping you could offer resources and sermons.
    The Holy Spirit gives me Bible verses and sermons, but sometimes I need a quick, last minute sermon because of a very busy schedule.
    We only have 30 minutes for each pod and oftentimes are interrupted by meds, early meal times, lock downs, etc. Satan is always resistant.
    I am so blessed by seeing the hardened hearts become soft and broken, opening up to accept Jesus. I love when every precious person finds true love, acceptance, and forgiveness from our Loving Savior Who gave Himself for each one of us.

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