Last year, Rev. Koole wrote an article (SB, Oct. 15, 2018) regarding the deplorable state of the American prison system. He concluded the article with a reminder that “Christ can still be brought to men and women in prison. And Christ still has power in the midst of such corruption and despair to set
His people free.” This article seeks to testify of that mighty power of God.
For many years now, a committee of men at Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Redlands, has labored in a correspondence work with prisoners across the state of California and beyond. By God’s grace, the work has flourished, growing from correspondence with just a couple of men to a current list of 30-40 men across 16 prisons.
The Redlands Evangelism Committee began its work of corresponding with prisoners in the spring of 2011, shortly before Rev. M. VanderWal left Redlands to serve a sister congregation. Rev. VanderWal requested that a member of the committee take over communicating with the two men he was writing, and with consistory approval, this transition was approved. Shortly after this, communication began with two other men who had come in contact with us through our “Reformed Witness” newsletter. One of those men was a leader of an “officially approved” Reformed Bible study at Calipatria State Prison. As a result of this and by God’s grace, our letters and literature had a profound impact on this group. In the spring of 2013, this group at Calipatria was split up due to a prison realignment policy that was put in place by court rulings on prison overcrowding. Two of the men who were relocated to other prisons were able to set up Bible studies in their new locations. In the Lord’s providence, this allowed our literature to find its way to new believers and more men came in contact with the distinct doctrines taught in the PRC. As RFPA books, the Standard Bearer, pamphlets and other literature were shared among prisoners, more men came in contact with us. The work grew enough that it was eventually split off as a subcommittee of the Evangelism Committee and presently consists of 10 men actively writing to multiple prisoners, with two elders overseeing the work.
The organization of this labor has also developed over time. The Correspondence Committee with the oversight and help of the consistory developed written guidelines for the work, covering everything from the mundane (mailing tips) to spiritual guidance. The committee continues to meet about every two months to discuss the work and exchange advice on subjects such as material to send and answers to challenging questions prisoners may have. A volunteer in the congregation transcribes Heidelberg Catechism sermons to send the prisoners. As it is nearly impossible to give audio sermons to prisoners, this is one way the committee seeks to provide “preaching” to those with whom they correspond.
This latter statement points to the primary goal of the committee in all its work: we seek to bring the Word. Our main purpose is not to line up jobs for them when they are released, or to testify to their character before parole boards. We do not send monetary assistance. We bring spiritual food, advice, comfort and exhortation, in the form of letters, pamphlets, and books; and when opportunity arises, in visits. Above all, we bring the Word. This is very important, for it sets our approach apart from that of almost every other ministry in California prisons we are aware of.
As one can imagine, the prisoners vary significantly in their knowledge of the Reformed faith. Some are very new to the Reformed faith, while others have read and studied much, leading small Bible study groups within their prisons. Many of these Bible studies work their way through the Heidelberg Catechism. Some of the men with whom we correspond have written essays on various doctrinal topics, including amillennialism, free will, election, and the biblical condition of all mankind. Many demonstrate a deep appreciation for the unspeakable gift they possess in Christ through personal testimony in their letters, and by a humble but willing witness to others within their prison.
Many prisoners endure persecution for their beliefs. Prison administrations typically do not recognize “Reformed” as a religious group separate from anyone else who calls themselves Christian, and therefore the men are not given their own place to meet. They must choose between meeting in the prison-sanctioned chapel with a group of free-will, modernist, universalist men who are often openly hostile to the truth, or meeting by themselves informally in the yard or wherever they can find a place. Prisoners also must live in the midst of more and more openly homosexual lifestyles that have become rampant within the prison system. All this to say nothing of the physical violence that exists in many prisons.
Members of the committee have visited some of these men with whom we correspond, though the number of correspondents and the distance of many of the prisons from Redlands makes doing this with regularity difficult. Perhaps one highlight of these visits occurred in July of 2017, when Rev. B. Huizinga, then-seminarian David Noorman, and Josh Feenstra were able to visit a Reformed Bible study in Calipatria State Prison. Rev. Huizinga spoke for fifty minutes on the salvation of the woman of Samaria, Sem. Noorman spoke for forty minutes on the Parable of the Sower, and Rev. Huizinga answered questions from the inmates for forty-five minutes. And the inmates were eager for more. There were about 16 men present, and the men were “eager to learn, hungry for truth, respectful, and appreciative of our presence.”
The correspondence work itself is as much a blessing to the men on the committee as we hope it is to the prisoners to whom we write. The questions asked and discussions about doctrine that take place often deepen our own understanding of the Word. As we come to understand the circumstances of these prisoners’ lives both before and under incarceration, we are humbled at how blessed we really are, growing up in strong Christian households (through no doing of ours). Visiting a man in prison and discussing the truth with him in the middle of a large visitation room full of inmates makes us stand in awe of the mighty work of Christ to save.
We give thanks to God that He has so richly blessed our work. We could provide many quotes from letters that are cause for praise to God, but we will limit ourselves to four:
I had hoped you received my request, anticipated perhaps receiving a reply, but to actually see the envelope arrive with Hope PRC as a return address and then seeing what was inside along with your encouraging letter and Scripture references regarding Jesus Christ setting the prisoners free (and I just happen to be reading Isaiah), it brought tears to my eyes. I am free indeed.
I received your letter earlier this week, Tuesday. Thank you very much for all your wonderfully edifying words, for your letters, along with the issues of the SBs, and the Reformed Witness. [These] are the only real edification I really get to enjoy aside from the books, and praise be to God in and through our Lord Jesus Christ that He has given you such a heart to continue in seeking to see to any spiritual edification you can provide, for which I am very thankful for you, the committee members, the congregation, and Rev. Huizinga, in whom our Lord works mightily. Thank you for your summary on Lord’s Day 42, of the eighth commandment, wonderful. It must be awesome to be able to go to the Lord’s house each Sunday, twice, to hear the Lord speak through His faithful servant, in faithful preaching.
(The following was written after exchanging several letters on infant baptism):
The baptism of infants is therefore fully in keeping with this emphasis in the Reformed confessions on the sovereignty of grace in salvation. Baptism is primarily God’s speaking to us, not our speaking to Him. It is there that He signifies and seals an operation of grace that He performs in the context of a community that He has established. How can this salvation sola gratia be any more graphically demonstrated than in the baptism of a tiny covenant child? Infant baptism sets before the church in sacramental shorthand the entire doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the salvation of the elect.
Everything else in life is simply good. Every day I thank the Lord for His grace, calm, and strength for facing the depravity that surrounds me. In spite of where I am, I can rejoice in all that the Lord gives to me.
We know other churches in our denomination also labor in prison work, and the previously referenced Standard Bearer article called for our churches to consider doing more. We echo that sentiment. As our committee continues its work, we covet the SB readers’ prayers, that God may grant wisdom and diligence to faithfully testify of God’s truth, to provide words of godly encouragement, and above all, that the work may always be to His glory.
For he hath looked down from the height of his sanctuary; from heaven did the Lord behold the earth; to hear the groaning of the prisoner; to loose those that are appointed to death; to declare the name of the Lord in Zion, and his praise in Jerusalem; when the people are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve the Lord (Ps. 102:19–22).