I’ve been visiting correctional facilities with the gospel since the 1990's, and yet the memory of my first visit still lingers in my mind. One heavy steel door after another clanked shut behind me and echoed up and down the hallway, as I was led deeper and deeper into the jail. The concept of being locked up took on new meaning for me that day, and I recall feeling a little like Dorothy in the land of Oz — “Toto, I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” The experience was a little surreal and unsettling.
Now as someone who has always been free to leave the correctional facilities I visit, I have to say that I cannot imagine what it must be like to be incarcerated. I cannot imagine having all of the freedoms and choices I take for granted (like choosing what I'll eat, or what I'll wear), taken from me. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be cut off from family and friends, my place of worship and my fellow Christians, not at a time like this — not when I’m going through what would undoubtedly be one of the most difficult times of my life.
Perhaps this is why the writer to the Hebrews encourages us to "Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoner" — because he realized that people in prison need to hear about their gracious God and Savior more than ever. Sharing Jesus is really what our ministry in correctional facilities is all about. "Remembering those in prison," we conduct worship services, Bible classes and one-on-one visitations with men and women in county jails, and state prisons in the upper Midwest. And while we do serve members of our WELS/ELS congregations, the vast majority of our ministry is to people who have limited knowledge of their Savior, or simply have no "church home". Being incarcerated is difficult —there's a reason why it's called "hard time" — and yet our gracious God has a way of using the difficult times in life to reach out to people through his Word, and this is where we come in. Simply put, the work we do is largely that of an "institutional missionary" shining the light of Jesus’ love behind the walls!
Chaplain Joseph Radsek