In his own words, Juan Martinez entered the Marion Correctional Institution (MCI) in Marion, Ohio as a “blasphemous agnostic.” He was angry at the world and at God. If God existed, He certainly did not like Juan. If so, He would have intervened in Juan’s life and kept him from the path that led to prison.
On Juan’s first day in jail, he stood at the top of the stairs and stared down at a room of rowdy, cursing inmates. Facing 20 plus years in prison, he tossed up a desperate prayer, “I don’t know you God, but, if I get nothing else out of this, I just want to know who you are.”
His inner turmoil led him to investigate Buddhism and New Age, but it was the faithful presence of Christian visitors that got his attention. “Only Christians were coming to prison to love us, and when you are loved that way, you notice.” In short time, he came to Christ through his new Christian friends and was baptized.
Juan studied the Word voraciously. He sensed a growing desire to serve God, but felt limited by his circumstances. Another inmate who had started a theology class by correspondence confessed to Juan that it was not of much interest to him. What a waste! Juan was filled with jealousy. He couldn’t “bug” his family for tuition, not after everything he’d already put them through. All he could do was wait and trust God for an open door.
That door opened soon after. MCI Chaplain Dr. Kola invited Juan to commit to a unique opportunity. Winebrenner Theological Seminary was offering their Pastoral Training Institute (PTI) in MCI itself, and generous donors were underwriting the tuition for up to ten MCI students. Juan committed on the spot. He knew it was God’s answer to his earnest desire.
Two phrases summarize what the PTI experience meant to Juan: “the how to’s” and “warm community.” While Juan had been studying the Bible extensively before PTI, the formal courses confirmed, organized, and explained theological concepts in a way that could be applied to everyday life and ministry. And the relationships he developed with his professors and classmates meant that the experience wasn’t “cold and detached.” They became a community of learners who pushed each other to achieve their very best. Now Juan had both the passion and the training he needed to lead and disciple others.
Since his early release from MCI this past June, Juan has taken time to pray and discern where he can serve Christ and apply his Winebrenner training. This February 2019, he accepted a full-time position as the Director of Communications and Development with Kindway/Embark Prison Ministry near Columbus, Ohio. He emphasizes, “I just want to be where God wants me to be because I’ve spent enough time not being where God wants me.”