Turning Jailhouse Salvations into Bedrock Christians
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When Durham, an AG-endorsed chaplain through U.S. Missions Chaplaincy Ministries, first began as a volunteer prison chaplain with the New York State Department of Correctional Services 41 years ago, his first assignment was to begin a Bible study in a maximum security prison. It was an eye-opening experience for the green, but determined, volunteer.
Durham wanted to do more than simply convey information about the Bible to inmates; he wanted to challenge them to apply Scriptures.
“Little did I know, a lot of inmates have a lot of Bible knowledge,” says Durham, now 75 and the director of Prison Ministries at Global University since 2007. “It didn’t matter what background they had, even Muslims seemed to be very familiar with Scripture. But it isn’t the knowledge; it’s the application of that knowledge that matters.”
Shortly after starting that Bible study and coming to more of an understanding of how inmates view their world, Durham joined Richard Tanon, the Assemblies of God first Hispanic chaplain, in what some might have considered a radical move.
“I helped Richard start a fully accredited Bible college within those prison walls,” he says. “As far as I know, it was the first one training men for the ministry — some earning AA, bachelor’s, and even working toward master’s degrees.”
However, although Durham helped start the Bible College, he isn’t sold on the idea of inmates pursuing a college degree — at least not at first. In working with Global, Durham urges inmates to first complete Global’s School of Evangelism and Discipleship (SED) courses. There are 37 courses available at no cost to inmates, beginning with The Great Questions of Life. Although the SED courses are free for inmates, Durham notes it costs Global University about $400 a day to print and mail the courses.
“You see, inmates typically don’t have any money, and then they put the pressure on their families to pay hundreds of dollars for each Bible college course,” Durham explains. “But guess what? Many of their families are already living hand-to-mouth as it is.”
Although some may raise an eyebrow at some of Durham’s hard-nosed approaches to inmates, which includes not baptizing any inmates until they demonstrate their relationship with Christ is legitimate, it’s easy for him to explain. As a boy, he gave his life to the Lord and felt called into the ministry. However, as a teen, he backslid and was running from the law on the streets of Dallas.
“I still went to church during this time to ease my conscience,” Durham says. “I had jailhouse religion and that’s why today I focus more on discipleship — walking the walk, not just talking the talk.”
Whatever he’s doing, he’s doing something right. Since beginning to offer the SED courses to inmates, 25,000 have completed at least one course and 1,400 have graduated, having completed all 37 courses.
Rob Lindenberg, 46, church planter and pastor of The Peak Community Church in Peekskill, New York, knows firsthand of the value of Global University and SED materials within prisons. He served two years in the Franklin Correctional Facility (2007-2009) in upstate New York. During his time there, he completed 23 Berean School of the Bible courses, including the core curriculums to become a certified and licensed minister.
Lindenberg says that he saw how God used the SED materials to immeasurably impact inmates’ lives. “You can’t measure the immeasurable,” he explains. “I don’t think you can ever really understand the impact . . . guys, isolated, disregarded by society, thrown into a hole, but then to have (SED) Christian Life and Christian Services material available to you for free, it’s like having a teacher right there in the cell with you.”
The impact of the materials, as Durham desired, went beyond lip service. Lindenberg says revival broke out in his facility. Where once 12 or 13 inmates attended a Sunday service, 60 to 65 started to come and Bible studies started popping up in housing units.
Lindenburg, who now, ironically, serves as a chaplain for the Peekskill Police Department, the office of Emergency Management, and the county’s voluntary ambulance corps, offers a thoughtful observation as to the value of SED material to current (and former) inmates: “Where would we be without it?”
Durham says the program, in at least one significant way, is similar to Chi Alpha Campus Ministries, the AG U.S. Missions ministry to college students.
“In Chi Alpha, students from other countries are saved and then go back home and share the gospel,” he explains. “In prison ministry, those serving time can come from all over the world as well — we’re seeing them saved, filled with the Holy Spirit, trained, and sent back home ready to share the gospel.” Durham says many Hispanic inmates return to places like Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras with more Bible training than many pastors in their villages.
However, inmates don’t necessarily have to be in a U.S. prison to benefit from SED materials. Durham says the materials have been translated into more than 100 languages and there are over 1 million people (inmates and free) enrolled worldwide in the SED.
“We’ve reached 1,000 facilities with SED,” Durham says. “Right now, we’re active in about 850 facilities as students (inmates) come and go. We started with 30 active students; today there are more than 3,200
In addition to guiding Prison Ministries at Global, Durham says he spends a lot of time connecting recently released inmates to churches. He explains that he first reaches out to a pastor in the area the former inmate now lives to discuss the possibilities and then, if it is a good fit, asks the church to commit to helping the inmate integrate into the church and community.
“The Lord challenged me to do this,” Durham says. “I’ve done this for almost 1,000 former prisoners through about 900 referral churches. It is very time consuming — I probably spend 10 or more hours a week on this alone.” He adds that he begins with AG churches, and if none are in the area, he moves to Church of God, then Four Square or a Calvary Chapel, and so on until he finds a church for the released man or woman.
Durham says his short-range goal is to see 5,000 active students by the year 2022, with a long-range goal of 10,000 by 2030. But what is amazing about this program is that it has not been promoted by Global University in prisons — news about SED has spread primarily through word of mouth.
As Durham reflects on the call God has placed on his life, and the thousands of lives being impacted, he sums it up simply: “God is turning prison time into Bible school time.”