Can Convicted Felons Love Christ?

Posted: November 3, 2010 by Alan Shlemon in Etcetera, Events

Answer: Absolutely!  I (Alan) gave eight presentations to about 150 felons during two days at Centinela State Prison this weekend (Brett spoke there as well). And I think I learned more than the felons did.

These weren’t merely white-collar criminals. Many were convicted of murder and other unspeakable violent crimes. Some had life terms. And, to my surprise, I was inside their prison yard, in a small room, with no prison guards for eight hours each day. But strangely, I never once felt like I was in danger. In fact, had the non-Christian felons rioted (like they had the weekend before) and I was in danger, I’m confident the felons I was with would have protected me.

Why? These were the most motivated, passionate, kind, gracious, and educated group of lay Christians I’ve spoken to in my entire career. I was in another world. They had a love for the Word, a passion for worship, and a desire to learn that shocked Brett and me. I felt cared for like a brother.

Each one greeted me with a handshake, hug, or kind words (or with all three). They took extensive notes when I spoke. They routinely asked tough, theological and philosophical questions. Some were pursuing advanced degrees from Christian universities that offered distance education. And when I left each day, many practically begged me to return. Their biggest concern was how they could grow as believers and become more effective at reaching their fellow inmates with the truth of the Gospel.

After returning back home and sharing my experience, I’ve already gotten the, “Well, those felons just have lots of time” response. Indeed, I said it myself. It’s almost a back-handed excuse as to why some of us lay Christians who aren’t incarcerated are less educated and passionate about our faith. But this is an unsatisfying excuse in my mind for at least three reasons.

First, although they do have a lot of time, they’ve chosen to spend it nurturing their faith. They could do other things that serve their own interests, but they don’t. They choose to pursue improving their ambassador skills so they can (and these are their words) “honor Christ in how [they] behave in prison” and “be better at sharing the gospel truth to their fellow inmates.” I know lots of people that have time, but that doesn’t mean they choose to spend it in the same way.

Second, although time might give you an opportunity to get educated, it doesn’t necessarily give you passion for your faith. The Christians in prison are not just learning facts; they’re growing in their trust in God and their skill in reaching others with the truth. It’s more than the intellectual assent that can be gained through reading books.

And third, it makes me wonder about the impact of all the stuff we have in our lives that prisoners don’t: computers, cars, smartphones, restaurants, sports arenas, gardening, swimming, theme parks, etc. It’s not that any of these things are intrinsically bad. But with all these things to do, pursue, and pay for, they compete for our attention (and I’m definitely including myself with having this liability and giving in all too often). Perhaps the discipline of simplicity is often overlooked (Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline has a good chapter on simplicity that I just reread).

I can’t say that prison ministry is this vibrant at every prison, but it seems like there is a lot of potential for discipleship among these brothers in chains.

  1. Shawn White says:

    Awesome report, Alan! I’ve been trying to cut out a lot of “extra” things to spend more time studying. It’s difficult at times, but I have enjoyed being slightly less “busy” than I have in the past. It’s definitely a lesson I can learn from as well – thanks for sharing.