Prison ministry sees more openness, needs at Christmas, chaplain says

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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP) – According to prison chaplain Paul Davis, the concepts that led to more than 85 decisions to follow Christ are not overly complex.

Listen to people. Help them understand they aren’t beyond grace. They matter to someone.

When Davis, a North American Mission Board-certified chaplain, looks them in the eye he says something he prays they see as clearly as the gray block and razor wire encircling their situation.

“This is where you are, but it’s not who you are.”

They are encouraged to give a response.

“This is where I am, but it’s not who I am.”

Waking up

The prison ministry Davis leads out of North Jacksonville Baptist Church places him mostly with juveniles, but also adults. The Montgomery Correction Center is where he works the most.

All told, Davis has been delivering the Gospel in correctional facilities for over 45 years. He came to the ministry by bus, so to speak.

“My wife, Jade, and I were part of the bus ministry at First Baptist (Jacksonville) and there was an 11-year-old boy who regularly rode those buses to the church. Later on, he was arrested and we went to visit him,” he said.

Davis doesn’t remember the boy’s crime, but visiting him in jail for the first time stuck.

“I had never done that,” he said. The main reason? There had never been a reason to go to such a place.

“It really opened my eyes to those needs. My wife and I were both working with students of all ages at our church and had a heart for that. So, to see this young man in that situation opened my eyes to a new world of ministry and need.”

That outreach grew into adult prisons as well. In the last six months Davis has seen more than 70 men make decisions to follow Jesus. Add at least 15 juveniles to that list.

“It’s been through God’s faithfulness and great love for all to come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ,” he told BP. “He has also answered the prayers of so many who pray for the ministry and for people’s eyes to be opened to the Gospel.”

Where attention is due

Davis knows about entering hostile territory, taking part in some 700 combat missions as a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam War.

“I don’t talk about the medals to draw attention to myself, but to draw attention to the Lord because He has saved my life many, many times,” Davis said in a previous article on his service. “And none of that compares to sharing Christ with youth and with men and women in prison.”

On Monday nights, he and a group of men go to the Montgomery Corrections Center where they talk to around 35 men at a time. At the Jacksonville Juvenile Detention Center, there are about 25 young people listening when he presents the Gospel. The span of time given ranges from an hour to an hour-and-a-half.

There is really no way to even ballpark how many individuals he has talked to in those locations over nearly a half-century.

Still, a sense of urgency accompanies every visit, treating each as the only time an inmate may decide to attend or is released or transferred before the next one. Common passages include those on the prodigal son and John 3:16-17.

“It says that God so loved the world,” Davis said. “He doesn’t exclude anybody.

“Verse 17 is critical and often overlooked. God sent His Son not to condemn the world, not to point a finger at you, but so that the world might be saved.”

Prison ministry is especially needed during this time of year.

“It’s tough when you’re away from the people you love,” he said, before referencing his military service. “I know about that, being away during the holidays.”

That doesn’t mean absolution from what placed them there, he clarified.

“God didn’t make winners or losers. He made choosers,” Davis said. “We are living a life of consequences. You have the ability to choose, but you can’t choose the consequences of your choices. Doing the right thing usually brings you the better consequence.”

But to look at it another way, those consequences have placed them in the path of people like Davis.

“God has put them with us,” he said. “When people are in jail, they become open to the Gospel.

“They need to know they matter. They need to know that somebody loves them.”

By SCOTT BARKLEY

Scott Barkley is national correspondent for Baptist Press.

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