Disciple Prison Ministry: ‘God Puts Skin on His Love’

By Susan Passi-Klaus

Disciple Prison Ministry image(UMCom) -- Cheryl Nehnevajsa never imagined herself behind barbed wire fences and locked doors, but once she set foot inside Forsyth Correctional Center in North Carolina, she knew she belonged there.

Cheryl had committed no crime. Her time served in the all-male minimum-security prison was not a sentence – it was a calling. She was following in Christ’s footsteps – offering spiritual freedom to those held captive.

“Cheryl is a real dynamo for the Lord,” said former Forsyth inmate Nathan Martin, 51. “God has given that lady a tremendous ability to love people regardless of who they are or the mistakes they’ve made. She’s been the one person I’ve ever known who can actually love others unconditionally.”

Six years ago, the soft-spoken homemaker and mother of two, was one of the first women in the Western North Carolina and North Carolina Annual Conferences of The United Methodist Church to venture outside church walls and go behind prison walls carrying God’s Word through the Disciple Bible Study program.

“I had never been to a prison or known anyone in prison, so I had no idea what I could possibly have to offer,” Cheryl said. “The day I first had lunch with some of the inmates who had spoken during our prison ministry training session, I was surprised that I wasn’t afraid to be with them or talk with them. Their concerns, fears, and joys sounded much like my own and those of my family.”

“It made my heart pound to hear the hope and confidence they had found in Disciple Bible classes,” Cheryl said. “I began to see how Disciple could make a difference outside of the church.”

"We entered through a fence lined with barbwire to a gatehouse where the officers would check us in and call for an escort. The inmates watched us cross the prison yard to the chapel. We were nervous, but surprisingly we were not frightened." -- Cheryl Nehnevajsa
Nathan Martin was in Cheryl’s very first Disciple group in 1997. By the time he left prison three years ago, he had taken four Disciple classes, and now, as a member of Cheryl’s church – Clemmons United Methodist Church, located near Winston-Salem – Nathan is continuing to take Disciple classes.

“I had no concept or sense of family until I got into Disciple and met people like Cheryl,” Nathan said. “It was the first time in my life I had someone in my corner who wanted to see me succeed and the first time I had ever received something that had always been a stranger to me…love.”

Nathan, who was once enlisted in the Army for nine years and who later owned his own successful business, was never able to overcome a childhood crippled by his parent’s dysfunction. As a five-year-old his world fell apart after his father left the family and his mother transferred the blame on to her young son. Five or six foster homes later, Nathan took to the streets where street values filled the void never filled with family values.

“I had always been told I was good for nothing,” Nathan recalled. “Disciple volunteers made me aware that each of us has value and that we are inherently good. They loved me because God loves me and that’s what brought them into the prison.”

The Rev. Mark Hicks, executive director of North Carolina’s Disciple Bible Outreach Ministries and the architect of the Disciple Prison Ministry, considers the Disciple program “transformational” for both volunteers and prison participants.

 “I was always excited by the possibility of transformation among the inmates,” Hicks said, “but I’m equally excited by the transformation occurring in our volunteers, and as a result, our churches.”

“Inmates are real people and when the volunteers see the consequences of poverty and injustice…when they encounter people on the margins of life and come in contact with others so different than themselves, their eyes are opened to mission possibilities in their own backyard.”
“Inmates are real people and when the volunteers see the consequences of poverty and injustice…when they encounter people on the margins of life and come in contact with others so different than themselves, their eyes are opened to mission possibilities in their own backyard.”

For Cheryl, prison ministry inspired and empowered by the Disciple Bible Study series has changed not only her life, and the lives of many in her church, it has unlocked the freedom to look beyond the outward appearance of a person and look instead into their heart.

“About a year or so after I started with the prison ministry, my husband decided to become a sponsor himself and later gave himself to the Lord,” she said. “And my daughter, after facilitating a youth Disciple group, is now involved in Rings of Fellowship, an outgrowth of the Disciple Prison Program for juvenile offenders.”

“The greatest blessing the Lord has shown us through this ministry is that people are people; that there are commonalities between all people and that when you look for Jesus in the people he surrounds you with, it touches every area of your life.”

And Nathan, who calls his Disciple group, the only family he’s ever known, puts it this way, “God put skin on his love and sent these people into my life.”

Susan Passi-Klaus is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tenn. and of publisher “Cracked Pots,” an inspirational newsletter for women.

This article was developed by UMC.org, a ministry of United Methodist Communications.


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