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Setting prisoners free one lesson at a time

By John W. Kennedy

Men toting the Word of God file in for the 7 o’clock Thursday night Bible study. They are white, black, and Hispanic. College-aged and old enough for retirement. Shaggy-haired and shaved bald.

The men, 21 in all, greet each other as “brother” with warm handshakes as they enter a spacious new building, shielded from the howling wind on a chilly November night.

As the assembled form a circle and hold hands, Leslie Bena opens in prayer, thanking God for the privilege of gathering and asking the Holy Spirit to guide the meeting.

Evangelist Tom Bevard is a guest tonight, and an attendee asks the district-appointed missionary if he brought his guitar and will sing a song. Bevard gladly agrees. With a voice similar to Ray Boltz’s and a style reminiscent of a ’60s folk singer, Bevard renders a tune one man in the group composed earlier. The song tells how former friends won’t understand the new lifestyle these men have adopted once they meet again.

From physical appearances this seems to be a representative cross section of the body of Christ. But there is an unusual similarity to these diverse men. They are all wearing identical blue jeans, denim shirts and red-hooded sweatshirts. And there’s another distinguishing characteristic: All have an identification badge bearing the words “Kansas inmate.”

Also out of the ordinary is the fact two women, Leslie Bena and Fay Smith, lead the men’s Bible study. Every Thursday they drive 35 miles from their homes to Larned Correctional Facility.

The women, who attend First Assembly of God in nearby Great Bend, take turns leading tonight’s chapters on the importance of prayer. They are teaching from materials produced by Global University, the Springfield, Mo.-based school that has 4,000 active correspondence students in U.S. prisons. These men have proceeded through courses such as “The Great Questions of Life,” “Who Jesus Is” and “Your New Life.”

Smith, 78, a retired registered nurse and a widow for a quarter century, says she was drawn to prison ministry after repeatedly hearing Jesus’ words: “I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:36).

Bena, 49, a physical therapist assistant, remembers 45 years earlier going to see her incarcerated father. After his release to a halfway house following years of confinement, Bena’s father felt helpless and hopeless. He committed suicide.

With the Lord’s help, Bena has conquered the dread of that experience. She doesn’t want other men to be released without a firm commitment to Jesus Christ.

“These men have been created for a purpose,” Bena says. “They need to fulfill that purpose.”

The faith-based Set Free project in Larned is part of Tom Bevard’s Freedom Ministries. Bevard, 48, is an Assemblies of God chaplain who has been an evangelist to prisoners around Kansas the past seven years.

Bevard travels to eight correctional facilities, aided by a dedicated group of 60 church volunteers in a variety of evangelism and discipleship outreaches. Iola, Bevard’s home base, is 220 miles east of Larned.

Bevard has gained the trust of Kansas Department of Corrections officials by repeatedly visiting prisons with a trailer-sized grill, cooking hamburgers and hot dogs for the inmates and staff. He also plays the guitar and preaches.

When Larned Correctional Facility Warden Karen Rohling agreed to allow volunteers to teach Global courses, Bevard saw the opportunity to move beyond evangelism to the discipleship of inmates.

“A lot of these men are one step short of success,” Bevard says. “We can provide that step.”

Rohling, 48, gives high marks to Freedom Ministries. “They’ve never let us down,” she says. “They never promise something they haven’t delivered.”

Assemblies of God Chaplaincy Department Director Al Worthley is delighted with Set Free’s dedicated volunteers.

“Altruism is alive and well in Kansas,” says Worthley, 60. “It’s a perfect example of government cooperating with a faith-based group. It gives the church an opportunity to disciple, and it keeps prisoners in a protected environment. It’s a good marriage.”

The state has started busing prisoners from other institutions to Larned to participate in the program. But inmates do not receive favorable treatment from the prison staff for attending and they must request the Global materials. No state funds are involved in the studies, which will last for one year. Global University teamed with Light for the Lost to provide the first year’s worth of materials.

One to four volunteers come to the prison to run sessions five nights a week. Volunteers use the Bible and Global materials as a means to teach English. Many inmates have difficulty reading. Larned is a minimum-security institution and most of the inmates are confined for a year or two, often for a drug offense.

The penitentiary is located outside the town of Larned, a flat-prairie community of 4,236 people. Several of the volunteers drive from Great Bend, 23 miles to the northeast.

“Volunteers give freely of their time and they bring a human touch that we can’t possibly provide to these men,” Rohling tells Today’s Pentecostal Evangel. “Ninety percent of these inmates will be released back into the community. We want them functioning at the highest possible level when they leave.”

Rohling believes fostering trust inside the walls will help men adjust once they get outside. That’s become more difficult in the throes of state budget woes that have drastically reduced vocational, educational and drug rehabilitation programs. Consequently, prisoners have a lot of idle time in the evenings. The Global classes are a perfect antidote to potential trouble.

While prison officials cannot endorse any particular religious group, Rohling says she is open to all ministries that provide a healthy program based on positive principles — and that supply the volunteers to keep it going.

Equal opportunity religion is evident in the prison’s library. Copies of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel sit beside the publications of non-Christian faiths.

“Churches are very welcome inside prison,” Rohling says. “They provide the humanity that really makes a difference.”

Judy VonFeldt, 44, felt a calling to prison ministry after Bevard spoke at the church she attends, First Assembly of God in Great Bend. Bevard caught VonFeldt — the mother of two teenagers and manager of three local business Web sites — off guard when he asked her to be project coordinator of the Set Free program at Larned Correctional Facility.

“There was just no way,” the soft-spoken VonFeldt says. “I’m an introvert! But I prayed about it, and God gives me boldness.”

VonFeldt, who works with youth at First Assembly in Great Bend on Wednesday evenings, now devotes 20-25 hours per week to Set Free preparing lessons, grading tests and keeping records. With husband Jim, a certified public accountant, she teaches a Tuesday night class on finances. She also oversees the volunteers who teach other classes. “God really gave me a broken heart for these men,” she says. “The information we teach is new to them.”

VonFeldt makes contacts with Bible-believing churches in communities where the men will be released in an effort to find mentors who will make the inmates’ transition smoother. She wants to make sure the men have a solid Christian foundation that will sustain them on the outside.

Set Free provides a method for churchgoers to use life skills that might not be utilized in the local congregation. For example, the most recent Set Free addition is a tape recording ministry under the direction of Elizabeth Best and her mother, Rosalee Roth, both of whom live in Larned. Every four months the Department of Corrections allows Set Free enrollees in good standing to tape biblically based stories or verses from the Bible itself for their young children. The narrative, plus a personal message, is recorded onto a cassette and then mailed to the child.

Freedom Ministries supplies the cassettes, while the inmates — who can earn a maximum of $1.05 a day in prison jobs — must buy the envelopes and stamps. This ministry is designed both to help men develop their reading skills and to strengthen their relationships with their families.

“We hope bonding with the children happens as a result and that the wife thinks better of her husband,” says Roth, 71.

Inmates don’t take the Set Free volunteers for granted.

“Seeing these people come here is encouraging,” Vernon Burrough tells me during the Thursday night Bible study. “I know they don’t get any money for this.”

Burrough says the course has solidified his often up-and-down 12-year walk with the Lord. Now he’s on fire for the Lord, and has recruited half a dozen men to attend this study.

The 58-year-old shows me photos of his children, who range from 16 to 42 in age. He thinks he can make it once and for all when he gets out in another two years. His Bible contains a mass of highlighted texts and during the study he recites several Scripture passages from memory.

James Alsobrook, 20, has been at the prison only since September. He surrendered his life to the Lord at a county jail while awaiting sentencing.

“I had been my own higher power,” says the quiet and articulate Alsobrook. “But I couldn’t make it; I didn’t make it. I had to find something to make me live the life I need to live, not the life I wanted to live.”

Alsobrook has a different background than many of the men, and a brighter future if he stays focused on the Lord. He played bass in a youth symphony and had a full football scholarship in hand until his arrest. Now he spends his days in chemical dependency recovery treatment.

“The people in Set Free have helped me grow in my walk with God,” says Alsobrook, who is eager to find a church when released in late 2004. “Before, I depended on alcohol to try to solve my problems.”

At the close of the nearly two-hour Thursday night Bible study, an inmate asks Bevard to sing another song. Bevard selects his own composition, “Tears on the Altar Again.”

As the group forms a circle of prayer, an inmate gives a praise report. His wife has contacted him after six months of silence. He credits the intercessory prayers of Bena and Smith and thanks the Lord he now serves.

John W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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