This blog entry is the second in a series on our students and alumni at Marion Correctional Institution (MCI). Because this unique community of learners cannot represent themselves through this platform, other voices will share about their journeys, both to faith in Christ and into ministry. This second entry, written by Winebrenner volunteer Mary Jo Jordan, gives insight into how Jesus is transforming hearts behind prison walls.
Watching Jesus Transform Hearts Behind Prison Walls
In the summer of 2013, a dear friend asked me to pray for her regarding an important decision. Dr. Linda Draper, a professor at Winebrenner Seminary, had been selected to teach a class in Spiritual Formation to a group of nine students, inmates at Marion Correctional Institute (MCI). She asked my friend to accompany her as prayer support every Wednesday for the fall semester. As Dr. Coats explained in the first entry in this series, these nine men had been chosen to take four years of seminary classes in order to receive a Pastoral Training Institute (PTI) degree from Winebrenner. We prayed, my friend agreed to accept the call, and God put things in motion.
Little did my friend know she would be doing this for the next four years, and little did I know that nine months later, she would ask me to lead a local group of prayer warriors every week in Findlay. This prayer group met for the next three years to pray for the professor, the on-site prayer partners and the students while they were all together in class at MCI. Over those years, we were blessed to attend many special events at MCI where we met these dear brothers in Christ, fellowshipped with them and developed relationships so we could “come alongside” to encourage their hearts to persevere in this amazing journey the Lord was taking them on.
One particular, bittersweet event stands out in my mind: their graduation in August of 2017. Such joy and sadness filled my heart that day because a second cohort was not in place to start classes the next month. I found myself repeatedly asking God, “Are You really closing this door?” I never heard an answer and God seemed silent. Much to my surprise, two years later (September of 2019), I found myself sitting in Dr. Linda Draper’s Spiritual Formation class with a second cohort as an on-site prayer partner. But there were not nine men. Now there were eighteen! God doubled His blessing and poured out His favor upon the Winebrenner/MCI partnership! God’s ways, thoughts and timing are always perfect! (Isaiah 55: 8-9)
Memories of that first day of class in September of 2019 will forever be with me. Dr. Linda’s class was entitled “Head to Heart.” At the beginning of the class, Linda turned and wrote “Father” with a capital “F” on the dry erase board, but didn’t say why. Half way through the class, she turned and wrote “father” in lower case right across from “Father;” and, then after break, she turned and put an equal sign between the two fathers. Finally, at the end of the class, after she had given her testimony about the difficult relationship she had had with her own earthly father, she turned and put a line directly through the equal sign: Father ≠ father. Then she proceeded to explain that she realized many of them had not had a good relationship with their earthly fathers, possibly had not even known them. BUT, she also said that by the end of the semester, she was praying that their Heavenly Father would have opened each of their hearts to receive His love in ways beyond their understanding. Suddenly not a dry eye was in that room. My heart wept with such compassion and joy for these men as I witnessed the Holy Spirit begin to tear down the walls the enemy had built around their hearts. One student in particular kept taking his glasses off to wipe away the tears. Dr. Draper ended the class by saying that Jesus prayed to His Father for them, “…that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me…(and) that the love with which You loved Me may be in them and I in them.” John 17: 20-26.
Over the next three months, hearts were radically transformed as God answered Jesus’ prayer for them, opening their hearts to receive their heavenly Father’s love. My own eyes witnessed the profound changes in their physical countenances from week-to-week as their hearts soaked up their heavenly Father’s love, a love that was transforming them body, soul and spirit. As the semester progressed, God began showing me how essential it is for a pastor’s heart to experience and receive the fullness of the heavenly Father’s love before they begin to shepherd their flocks. Jesus said the two greatest commandments are to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength; and, to love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22: 34-40) If a pastor has never received or experienced his/her heavenly Father’s agape love through Jesus, how can they demonstrate that love or pour it back out into the life and faith of their sheep and others? You cannot give out something you have never received.
In January, 2020, Dr. Bruce Coats taught the Old Testament Survey class using a narrative method to unveil a foreshadowing of Jesus Christ from the pages of the Old Testament. I observed hearts more receptive to their heavenly Father’s love and hearts better prepared to receive a deeper revelation of who Jesus truly is, who He desires to be in them and who they are in Him with the Father. I saw the knowledge of Jesus and God’s love, as spoken of in the Scriptures, travel from “heads to hearts.” (Malachi 4:4-6) Their heavenly Father had filled their hearts with His love and had then invited them to crawl up on their Abba’s lap to hear the old, old story, of Jesus and His love for them.
That amazing class was suddenly cut short by COVID-19 and disappointment flooded all our hearts. However, at the same time, God began showing me how He alone can open the prison doors of our hearts and transform them. He brought to my remembrance what He had shown me years ago in Matthew 25: 31-40, where Jesus explains about ministering to the “least of these,” those who are thirsty, hungry, naked, strangers, sick and in prison. From that list of the “least,” God had never given me a heart desire to visit those in prison. Now, here I was years later, visiting those in prison, with a heart sold out to Jesus to do so. God alone had thrown open the doors of my heart and of that prison, to give me the privilege to enter in and watch His transforming love in action.
As I consider how God transformed my own heart, I give each of you reading this blog entry this challenge. If my eye and heart-witnessed account of how Jesus can transform hearts behind prison walls has touched your heart, please pray and consider how you might “test” God. Malachi 3: 8-10 tells us to “test” God and bring our first-fruit to Him. Ask God what your first-fruit offering to Him might be in this ministry. If your circumstances make it impossible for you to give of your time to actually visit those in prison, maybe God might require you to cheerfully give of your time in prayer and/or finances to this ministry. Let’s “test” God together and see if He doesn’t open up the windows of Heaven, and those prison doors, to pour out so much blessing into the Winebrenner/MCI program that our hearts cannot contain it! He is able!
God bless you in Christ Jesus, our Lord and Savior!
– Written by Winebrenner volunteer, Mary Jo Jordan