prisoners free one lesson at a time
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
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”
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
“These men have
been created for a purpose,” Bena says. “They need
to fulfill that purpose.”
WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
very welcome inside prison,” Rohling says. “They provide
the humanity that really makes a difference.”
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.
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
“We hope bonding
with the children happens as a result and that the wife thinks
better of her husband,” says Roth, 71.
don’t take the Set Free volunteers for granted.
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
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
W. Kennedy is news editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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