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The First Time I Went to Prison

I was eighteen at the time. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen that day.

The sun was just coming up over the horizon as I was packed into a dusty old Malibu Classic along with six other dreary-eyed college guys. Three men in the front, four in the back, shoulder to shoulder. Although tired and yawning, nobody seemed to mind the cramped quarters.

Most of the ride was relatively quiet, as some of the “veterans” of these types of trips talked quietly and sipped coffee as we bumped along country roads. It was an early Sunday morning and I was looking out the window at the South Carolina country sunrise, blinking off the sleep. This was my first Christian outreach since I arrived at the university and I joined a group of fellows on a mission outreach to a prison in Anderson County. I knew none of these fellows – I only knew that I wanted to help out in a prison ministry. What should I expect? I had no idea. I asked the red-haired student sitting next to me.

“We’ll have a Bible message first, in the cafeteria area,” explained Neil, an accounting major who was sitting next to me. “Most of them will bring their own Bibles, but we have some we can give away if any man needs one. That meeting will be forty-five minutes before the guards will signal that time is over. Then after the meeting the inmates go out into the yard for half an hour before breakfast. We’re allowed to sit and talk with them if they want.”

“Is the Bible meeting required?” I asked.

Neil shook his head. “No. But wait until you see how many show up.”

I had never done this before. I never had the opportunity to personally talk to anyone about salvation and invite them to accept Jesus. I wasn’t sure if I was excited or scared, but I knew that this was what I wanted to do.

Carl was driving. He was a speech major; he would be the speaker for the Bible meeting.

“Now, Brad, when we get there, just sit near the back and be ready in case a man might have a question or just want to talk. Many of the men will be quiet, but once in a while one will ask to speak to someone. You never know. Just be ready, okay?”

I nodded. “Okay.”

“Hey, guys,” said Neil, pulling out a small cup from the floor. “Here you go. Everybody pitch in for gas for Carl.” The cup was passed around as guys fished out dimes, quarters and dollars and dropped them in the cup.

Another fellow named Rick was squeezed in the middle of the men in the front seat. “We’re almost there. Guys, let’s pray about the morning’s worship service. I’ll start and we’ll go around the car and each pray for the service and a possibility to talk to a man about Christ.”

Rick started off the prayer time and in the warm quietness of the car each fellow took a turn at prayer. I had just worked a night shift with the janitorial crew and I was exhausted. When it came to my turn to pray, I was fast asleep. When the next person prayed and bypassed me, I woke up suddenly. I was mortified.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Neil gently. “It’s not the first time it’s happened. A lot of us work night shifts, too. Hey, God understands.”

We pulled up to the prison and parked. The fellows got out and stretched, getting their Bibles out, pulling on their suit coats and adjusting their ties. The leader had decided that out of respect for the prisoners and to make it more special, each of us would wear a suit coat and tie.

We were escorted through the gates and I heard a buzzer as a guard released an electronic lock to let us in. I peered into the darkened hall and got an institutional smell of chicken soup and floor cleaner. The cafeteria was to our right. The wooden seats and podium were already set up.

The fellows took their places and I heard another buzzer. A dark-haired man with haunted eyes and a dirty white T-shirt walked in and looked around before seating himself of the second row. He was followed by a frizzy-haired inmate who surprised me with his youthful looks – it appeared to me that he looked to be about eighteen. He was wearing faded jeans and a collared shirt.

They filed in quietly, all types of men. Short, tall, white, Hispanic, black, old, young…

Some looked like blue-collar types that could break me in half. Others looked like accountants who just stepped off of Wall Street.

Funny thing was, none of them smiled or talked at all.

But they were seriously intent.

The meeting started with a song by three of our group and a prayer by Neil. Carl gave a message from the book of John and offered an invitation, but no men came forward or raised his hand. The bell rang. The meeting was over and the men were spilling out into the prison yard.

Carl didn’t seem bothered by the lack of response. “Now, Brad, here’s a great opportunity for all of us. Just go wander around and talk with the men. They might want to open up now. Take your Bible.”

I adjusted my tie and headed out into the dusty yard underneath the morning sun. The grass was scrubby and gray-green. Most men wandered aimlessly, chatting slowly. I made my way over to the weightlifting bench, where a muscular young black man who appeared to be in his mid-twenties was lifting some weights.

As I had said, I had never given the plan of salvation through Jesus Christ before. I wasn’t sure how to start.

He finished lifting weights and looked up at me.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hi,” he said.

“I’m Brad,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“Daniel,” he answered. He looked at me without expression.

I wasn’t sure about the art of conversation, so I blurted out the next question.

“Daniel,” I said, “do you know how to get to Heaven?”

“No,” he replied plainly, sitting up and looking at me.

I gulped. “Would you like it if I showed you?”

He looked me straight in the eye. “Yes. I would, yes.”

My heart leaped as I sat on the bench next to him and showed him Jesus’ plan for salvation. I opened my Bible so he would know I wasn’t going by opinion. I showed him John 3;16 and Romans 3:23. He took my Bible and turned the pages to Romans 6;23 and Romans 10:9 and 10. He never smiled but he asked me questions with an intensity I had never seen before.

Finally I asked him: “Daniel, would you like to turn your life over to Jesus Christ? Would you let Him take control of your life from here on out, taking your sins and giving you a new way?”

Daniel nodded. “Yes, I would.”

And there on that little black metal weight bench in the middle of a dusty prison yard in South Carolina on a quiet Sunday morning, I was able to show a person the way to get to heaven through Jesus Christ.

The first time I ever had the privilege of doing so. My heart was pounding.

This was a whole new step in my life, as it was in Daniel’s.

Daniel and I talked quietly for a few moments and he thanked me before heading in when the bell sounded. He walked away with a more vibrant step. He smiled as he headed toward the building.

I also smiled as I walked through the gates of that prison. I knew my life would never be the same.

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