This blog entry is the third 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 third entry, written by Adjunct Professor Dr. Linda Draper, shares how God is using the Winebrener/MCI relationship to transform hearts and lives, preparing servants for His Kingdom work.
“I can never escape from your Spirit! I can never get away from your presence!” (Psalm 139:9 NLT). That truth is such a comfort, one that illustrates God’s deepest love and attentiveness for us. No matter where we go, he’s already there. We never go alone into a new venture. In 2013, I discovered that God is truly present at Marion Correctional Institution. That’s when Winebrenner Seminary sent me to teach nine men who knew God, but wanted to be closer to him. It was a marvelous experience watching God at work.
Last fall, I again was teaching a class at MCI, this time with 18 chosen vessels of God who had eagerly opened their hearts and minds to becoming more intimate with their Savior. Although I was there to teach, I also was an active learner. I had gone to teach them about God’s deep love for them, but as the class progressed, I found God reminding me of his unfailing love!
For years, I struggled with who God was. Rather than simply respecting him, I was literally afraid. As God worked, I began to discover that he truly loved me—and others. I now had a message to share. A.W. Tozer said, “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Teaching at MCI was a blessed opportunity as I witnessed the same transformation take place in the lives of the 18 students.
The MCI students were so receptive to God’s grace. As they read textbooks, spent time daily in contemplative prayer, meditated on the Word of God and grappled with truths (that sometimes seemed almost too good to be true), our discussions deepened and individuals became more settled about his love for each of them.
As the Spirit of God worked in their small groups, I began to see camaraderie develop as the men risked speaking the truth in their own lives. As freedom continued, men ventured into sharing their hearts. They soon began speaking openly in the whole group. One student talked about his lack of a relationship with his earthly father. Another discussed how he never knew his earthly father. One man said he’d never met his biological father until he met him in prison. If their earthly fathers had no relationships with them, how could they believe their Heavenly Father could love them?
As we discussed God’s Word telling us to love one another, I shared with them that God may as well have told me to give each student $1,000,000. It was totally impossible because I didn’t have what I needed to give them. The same is true when God tells me to love others. Only because God is love and pours his love into me do I have love to share with others. Our fathers could not give us love because they had no love to give. But the Heavenly Father is pure love and pours into us his love.
The Holy Spirit was constantly at work opening eyes. God was so gracious to allow them to experience the truth that they could be honest with God and still be accepted by him. The chaplain told me that what the men experienced in class would circulate throughout the prison and beyond. He knew these students. One man talked about the responses of others when they saw the artwork Winebrenner gave them, depicting Jesus tenderly holding a child. Another man said he and his daughter were studying the contemplative verse for each day; he was so pleased that he could introduce her to Jesus. Another student shared being able to speak to another MCI resident. Another person said he was sharing with others in his residential area what he was learning in class. One man said he was beginning to look for hurting people and simply speaking a kind word to them.
God was breaking down walls erected decades ago. The Holy Spirit was opening hearts and lives seeking intimacy with God. Those who were initially reticent began to speak up. As the group continued, the greater the need for tissues. Several began sharing emotions that had lain buried for many years. A number of men asked for specific prayer for needs that the Spirit was identifying.
God was definitely at work changing all of us during our time together last fall. Frederick Buechner said, “God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who God is.” And God is welcome and so active transforming lives in the partnership between Winebrenner and MCI.
I praise God that Winebrenner has the vision to go to those who can’t come to us. These men are highly motivated, genuinely seeking and actively responding to God’s Word. What a godly privilege to pray, encourage and support the work the Holy Spirit is doing in our brothers’ lives at Marion Correctional Institution (Matthew 25:36).
– Written by Dr. Linda Draper, Adjunct Professor