Ministering at 89
On May 14, relatives, pastors, chaplains, professors, ministry volunteers, and even a prison warden and a few ex-convicts threw a surprise party for Priscilla Edwards. They came to celebrate with Edwards, 89, retiring after 16 years of faithfully teaching Living Free classes at Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland, Missouri.
Edwards didn’t plan specifically to go into prison ministry when she moved to Springfield in 2003. She just wanted a place to serve, as she has done all her life.
Priscilla Edwards met her husband, Ernest, at Metropolitan Bible Institute, now consolidated into the University of Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Priscilla helped as needed when they pastored for many years in New Jersey and New York. While in the Rochester area, she worked at the local Salvation Army, teaching 12-step classes. She taught a Christian growth series as part of a radio ministry.
In 1952, while helping her husband with preaching duties at their full-time pastorate plus a rural church plant, Edwards obtained ministerial credentials.
“I was preaching so much, someone at the district said it might be a good idea,” she laughs.
In 1990, shortly after his 60th birthday, Ernest received a diagnosis of a rare blood cancer. During five years of treatment, Ernest served as a chaplain while Priscilla taught 12-step classes. In 1995, Priscilla’s mother and her husband died days apart.
After settling family matters, Edwards moved into a home with her daughter and son-in-law, eventually moving with them to Springfield, where the 73-year-old widow looked for a place to volunteer. Wanda Nava, with the James River Church prison ministry team, urged her to consider ministering at Ozark Correctional Center. Edwards began speaking occasionally in open chapel. Then, drawing on her experience with 12-step and discipleship classes, she began teaching weekly Living Free classes.
Former inmates call “Grammy” a great fit.
“She vibes well with the guys, communicates well,” says David Manning, now on staff at Springfield’s Freedom City Church. “I never felt judged by her.” Manning credits Edwards with helping him cope during incarceration when his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
Zachary Rogers, another former inmate, directs Freedom City’s Branson campus. After he accepted Christ as Savior through OCC’s chaplain ministry, he found inspiration from Edwards’s steadfast determination to bring Living Free to the inmates each week.
“I was a little concerned when she couldn’t drive there on dark stormy winter evenings,” Rogers says. “But as soon as the weather improved enough for her to see to drive, there she was. We were so glad to see her.”
John Alarid, a former heroin addict who now is lead pastor at Freedom City Church, says Edwards proves it doesn’t necessarily take a criminal background to minister to inmates.
“When she walks into chapel, she commands respect,” Alarid says.
Priscilla has had her share of struggles, including the loss of her 37-year-old son Mark to cerebral vasculitis. She brings a grandmother’s love to the inmates, knowing each is somebody’s son who made bad choices.
Although the May celebration was tagged a retirement party, Edwards isn’t through serving. She will continue doing open chapel once a month. Jennifer Counts, another member of the JRC team who assisted in recent months, is conducting the weekly classes for a smooth transition.
Edwards has overcome several health troubles, including breast cancer as well as lymphoma more than a decade ago. She says she has been cancer-free since asking for prayer for healing at a James River Church service. She stays active in Silver Sneakers classes at the local YMCA. She reads the Bible with a visually impaired friend and volunteers at Living Free at Freedom City Church. Residents of the church’s Men’s Hope Home are required to attend the program, so those formerly at OCC appreciate the continuity.
At 89, Edwards plans to continue serving as long as the Lord gives strength and opportunities.