Since June 2013 Craig Hamilton, a member at Denver West Adventist Church, Ted Williams, pastor of the Ft. Lupton Church, and Prison Ministries veteran worker Ms. Naecarma Foster have been spending their Sabbath evenings fellowshipping with inmates at the Adams County Detention Center in Brighton, Colorado, a minimum security risk facility. They sing and pray together and study the Bible, following questions developed by the team in a program called Christ Centered Living. Weekly attendance ranges from 3-12 men. The focus is on knowing Jesus and following His leading regardless of one’s circumstances.
Following is an OUTLOOK interview with Craig Hamilton.
How did you become involved with Prison Ministries?
This ministry is not about me as an individual but this story is about the 35,000 individuals who find themselves incarcerated each day in the Rocky Mountain Conference boundaries. This story is about David as he gave his heart to Jesus during one of the meetings and the inmates that knelt around him to welcome him into God’s family. It is about Tommy as we witness the “new man” emerging week after week, as Tommy witnesses the Love of Jesus to other inmates. It is about Isaac as he walks with His Lord daily. These two men are true disciples of Christ as they share Love, Hope and Faith with all they come in contact with. These are two men that practice and hone their discipleship skills by placing their lives daily before God to serve Him and following His will.
This story began for me in late spring 2012 when Denver West Church had two visitors come to our church. During Sabbath School they shared they were from Anchorage, Alaska. They had come to visit a son of one of the women. He was incarcerated in a prison about one hour’s drive east of Denver that housed inmates all from Alaska.
I offered to visit with this woman’s son. Thus began a friendship between myself and Isaac that continues today. We met most Friday evenings in the Hudson Correctional Facility for about nine months. We spent about two hours each week praying and discussing what we had learned from our studies during the week. We shared with each other our struggles and successes as we dedicated ourselves to walking with our Lord each day.
I remember Isaac sharing with me (of course, later in our relationship) that he was not sure if he wanted to spend his Friday evening with a stranger (old guy on top of that) and wondered what we would talk about. This is an example of how Prison Ministry can brings individuals together who have a common bond—Jesus, and that He loves each of us and wants us all to join Him in His heavenly home. In time, Isaac was baptized and we continue our fellowship via letters since his return to Alaska to serve out his sentence.
What was the next step for you?
I discovered that an Adventist church from the nearby town of Ft. Lupton was coming each Sabbath for church services in the prison. I contacted Pastor Ted Williams and he invited me to join with him and two other members (Martin Pope and Don Schraeder) who had been conducting church services in the prison for two years. This also was a beginning of another blessed friendship, this one between Pastor Williams and myself.
This facility had a Faith Pod—a model that is utilized in many correctional facilities across the county. The faith pod is truly a gift from the Holy Spirit as the focus of this pod is that each man, according to his faith and beliefs, is supported by the programming and by other brothers to develop a closer relationship with God. One component of this program was a mentoring night that brought in many men from different denominations each Monday evening to meet with a small group of brothers to study, to pray, to support, to bring hope that others outside the walls cared and wanted to have a relationship with them as brothers in Christ.
My friend Isaac told me the mentoring night was the weekly highlight for many of the men due to fellowship with the brothers who came faithfully each week. This was important to the men as the distance from family made it difficult, if not impossible, for the men to have visitors. These meeting occurred each Monday evening for the entire course of the prison being in Hudson until all the inmates who had been in this contract prison were transferred back to Alaska and the prison was closed. I was only able to attend two of the sessions due to coming into this system toward the end of the provision of services for the state of Alaska.
The weekly services provided by the members from the Ft. Lupton Adventist church followed a format of study usually utilizing the past Sabbath School quarterly and discussion within the group regarding issues and topics related to walking with Jesus. The men attending these services (3-4) had an interest in Adventism through previous exposure or had been or were currently Adventists. Even though this prison closed my heart was captured and I was called to continue within this ministry.
How did you continue your involvement?
Prior to the closing of the Hudson facility Pastor Ted and I approached the Adams County Detention Center, as he had visited with several inmates over the last few years but had not been able to get into the jail with any kind of programming. He was told there was no opening for any other denomination. Adams County Detention Center has a very active Faith and Citizen Volunteer program. We were able to set up a meeting with one of the chaplains and the door was opened. We began to provide programming at this facility June 2013. We meet weekly, Sabbath evening for one and one half hours. Prior to this Pastor Ted and I developed a format to present to the prison/jail system “Christ Centered Living.” The focus of this program is to introduced or support a closer relationship for each the inmates to Jesus. The questions from the Christ Centered Living program are: 1. Who is Jesus? 2. Who am I? 3. Who is Jesus to me? 4. Who am I to Jesus? The Bible is our main study guide; we have had success with sharing Steps to Christ with the inmates and have been able to leave copies at the prison/jails libraries and with inmates themselves.
The service at Adams County begins with introductions and stating that we are there to share with each person our love of Jesus—that He is our best friend and we want Him to become their best friend. We usually have music in the form of a CD; we develop a pray request list; we pray over this list; we study the Word following the general guidelines of the above Christ Centered Living program. We all pray at the end.
Interestingly, baptisms are not allowed at this facility. There are three of us (Pastor Ted Williams, and another prison veteran Naecarma Foster) currently going to the facility each week. Attendance ranges from 3 men to as many as 12 men. This population is much more fluid in that individuals are coming and going more frequently. The changes we are seeing spiritually, physically, emotional are beyond words. Peace is filling these men who have consistently attended; sentences are reduced; God’s hand is mighty; and we are witness to His work.
Ms. Naecarma Foster (currently a member at Denver West) as stated above is a veteran Prison Ministry leader. She was also a Bible Worker within the Oregon prison system in the Northwest Conference for two years prior to moving to Colorado. Pastor Ted and I have been trained and approved to provide volunteer ministry services within the Colorado Department of Corrections. Once approved by Colorado DOC, you must apply separately to each prison to gain further access. We have been approved as well to go into the Crawley County Correctional Facility east of Olney Springs, Colorado. We are just beginning to develop this program twice each month on Friday evening. Jim Schwab from the La Junta Church joins us as well.
The Christ Centered Living Program has been accepted as the format to be shared within the Colorado Department of Correctional facilities, including public and private facilities. At this point we only work with minimum security risk men. We have not taken on the working with women as of yet, however Common Grounds (an Adventist church in Colorado Springs) is working at the La Vista Women’s Correctional Facility under the guidance of Enid Almeida. She was been working with this program since 2005.
How do you build the necessary trust level to be effective?
Let God lead. Leave all your personal issues in your car; it is not about us as individuals but following Him and serving God. Showing up is the most effective way to build trust. And being willing to listen.
What do inmates need most?
They need a personal Jesus—someone who is real. And they need hope. They need our time. Time is rich and they need us to reach out and share how much we love Jesus. They need to know someone is willing to take the time to spend with them, that someone has hope and faith that they can return to society and not return to the prison/jail life. They need biblical support—the full armor of God to be successful. They need encouragement to not leave Jesus at the prison/jail door. When they leave, Jesus is to go with them. When they leave, they need to continue to have Jesus as the center of their life, to become their Best Friend. We must model how Jesus can be the center of a person’s life.
Community is another area that is not currently developed within the Rocky Mountain Conference. What I mean is this: when a person is ready to leave prison or jail and return to the community, what is available for a new Christian former inmate? The system that is available currently is broken for most of the people returning to society. What can we as a church family offer these individuals that will increase their chances of success? How do we provide a continuum of opportunities for each person to build that relationship with Jesus that we pushed while we met with them as inmates? The Holy Spirit is leading, God is leading, Jesus is loving us all everyday. And how do we serve our brothers and sisters who have reached out to the Lord and given their life to Him? Each person must be surrounded by prayer groups lifting up their names. This is another component of the Prison Ministry within each church across the conference.
How do you share your own spiritual journey as a disciple of Christ?
We are mostly there to listen, not for ourselves. We can share personal experiences in a general broad fashion, but we are there to share Jesus. I will share my struggle of drug and alcohol abuse from the past, but only in the context of the conversation.
Listening does not mean we are not in control of the situation or the discussion. There are people everywhere in prison and out who want to control every situation they are in. But the key is keeping Jesus the focus and setting up clear expectations for conduct within this very holy setting. When wee are in church, we respect, and we expect respect in return. We pray for the Holy Spirit to worship with us. Jesus is a wonderful example of the power of listening. We pray that our Lord sends His angels to fill the room and crowd out the enemy.
Is there sometimes a feeling of danger due to being behind locked doors?
This has not been an issue for me personally. I feel very safe while I am in the facilities. Communication has been clear; the staff know where I am and who is with me, so this has not been a problem. I also know that the Holy Spirit is there to guide, direct and protect all of us during the study and worship time and I have complete trust in this protection and guidance.
What is most rewarding for you in this ministry?
The reality is that each Sabbath evening as my ministry partners and I talk upon leaving we realize there is no other place we would rather be on a Saturday night than there at Adams County Jail studying with our brothers. Pastor Ted, Jim and I feel the same way each time we leave the Crawley County Correctional Facility. We are blessed. Only when the prison is placed on locked down status are we unable to attend services.
What is the most challenging factor regarding Prison Ministries?
The most difficult issue for this ministry is “showing up.” Another issue is the lack of workers to go into the jails or prisons. The doors are open for us—what we lack is people power.
What opportunities are facing you?
As I stated above, I have been blessed recently (again) in that I have been invited to join with another group serving the La Vista Prison in Pueblo. Enid Almeida is the prison ministry coordinator from the Common Grounds Adventist Church in Colorado Springs. I will be joining with the men’s ministry meeting once per month.
Another opportunity that has been presented at another prison close by is starting a Bible Study group once per month at the San Carlos Correctional Facility. Ms. Almeida has been working at the La Vista Women’s and Men’ Correctional Facility since 2005. She is also very involved with the Angel Tree Prison Ministry. I look forward to working with her team.
Are there other plans for the future?
I want to develop within the conference a starting point organization that can guide and direct individuals into this ministry and support those currently involved. There are plans to develop a prison ministry link to the Rocky Mountain Conference web site. Besides utilizing the web link to develop and support current programs, it can be used as a contact point for families and friends to request visits to their loved ones in prison/jail in the Rocky Mountain Conference area.
Another area of development for Prison Ministry is that not only should we be going into the prisons and jails to provide Bible studies and services, we need to also be available to visit inmates one-on-one if requested. Another ministry could be the availability for inmates to have pen pals. This model is being used successfully in other conferences.
Another use for the web link will be reaching out to other conferences and the General Conference to become part of and learn from other conferences regarding this ministry. There are plans to bring together all the current prison and jail Bible workers and those interested in this ministry to join in a meeting this spring or early summer. The goal of the meeting is to develop and formalize a network of involved and interested volunteers to serve the Lord within the walls of prison and jails. I look forward to seeing prison ministry developed, available and operating in every prison or jail facility within the Rocky Mountain Conference.
How many programs are currently running in RMC?
Within the Rocky Mountain Conference we are currently award of six active programs in Colorado: Sterling , Pueblo, Crawley County, Hudson, Adams County and Aurora (Youth Corrections) Torrington, Wyoming also had a program. These programs are led by dedicated disciples for Christ .They work hard and without fanfare to present God’s loving message and support each inmate. These programs must be prayed for each day as we pray for the message to reach the ends of the earth.
Any final thoughts?
A cell or pod within a prison or jail can be the end of the earth if that is where you find yourself. The blessing that is received with each interaction is rich and beyond words. It is the prayer of the members of Christ Centered Living Program (Pastor Ted Williams, Naecarma Foster and myself) that we, as a conference and as a worldwide church, expand and provide a format and support system to meet the needs of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.
“I was naked and you clothed Me.
I was sick and you visited Me.
I was in prison and you came to Me.”
– Matt. 25: 36