By Esther Fultz
For many Christians, the incarcerated population is difficult or intimidating to minister to because the majority of those in prison have different life experiences from the average person. Many of them lack access to resources and opportunities Cedarville students take for granted.
In Matthew 25:36, Jesus told his disciples, “I was in prison and you came to see me.” When his disciples asked when they did this for him, he responded, “Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of my brothers, you did it to me.”
Cedarville University’s Jail Ministry Org gives students the opportunity to share Christ with incarcerated people. Students in the Jail Ministry Org can join one of multiple teams that visit local jails on different days of the week. Every Sunday morning, a jail ministry team attends the Greene County Jail where they walk between cell blocks, distributing Bibles and facilitating Bible studies and Gospel conversations.
In the past, jail ministry teams would go to the Clark County Jail on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday evenings where they ministered to inmates through conversations over telephone. However, they have not gone this year because Cedarville no longer has a connection to the jail. The teams still meet on their respective days to pray for those in jail and are working to reestablish a connection with the jail and resume last semester’s ministry in the future.
Sophomore Biblical Studies major Marissa Lykins got connected with the Jail Ministry Org through the Involvement Fair during her freshman year at Cedarville.
“The Lord, in high school, laid ministry to inmates on my heart,” Lykins said. “There weren’t any opportunities at that time to get involved with something like that, so when I got to Cedarville, I was super excited about it.”
Lykins now leads the Tuesday night jail ministry team with her co-leader and fellow sophomore Biblical Studies major Shaun Yun. Another sophomore Biblical Studies major Owen Dorrity leads the Monday night team, while senior Molecular Biology major Rachel Cox leads the team for Thursday nights. Like Lykins, Dorrity came into Cedarville with a desire to pursue jail ministry.
“I didn’t know exactly what that would look like, but I was trusting the Lord to direct my paths, and the first table I saw at the Involvement Fair was the jail ministry table,” Dorrity said.
Yun got connected to the Jail Ministry Org through Dorrity, who sat next to him in their Introduction to Philosophy class.
“He was telling me about it, and I was like, ‘That’s cool for you,’” Yun said. “I didn’t really do anything, and then the next semester rolled around, and I realized I had too much free time.”
Yun reached out to Dorrity and asked if he was still involved with the jail ministry. Shortly after, he joined the team going to the Greene County jail on Sunday mornings.
Cox wants to pursue dentistry and wants to use her degree to do missions full time while working. She joined the Jail Ministry Org because of her passion for sharing her faith and evangelizing.
“My freshman year, I volunteered at a children’s hospital but later found out I wasn’t able to share my faith or speak about God,” Cox said. “I had a friend who was involved in jail ministry, and I was able to start going into the jails my sophomore year.”
One of the biggest surprises for Cox going into jail ministry was the differences in backgrounds she experienced, not just between herself and inmates, but from one inmate to another.
“You’ll casually be mentioning, Paul said this, or talking about something Jesus said in the Gospels, and they won’t know which books the Gospels are. Or they’ll be like, ‘Who’s Paul?’” Cox said. “But then you’ll be speaking with another inmate, and they have a Master’s of Divinity. There’s a lot of variety in who you get to talk to.”
One thing Cox has found helpful in ministering to inmates is knowing the Bible well, especially knowing chapter and verse references rather than just the book a quote is from.
Freshman Social Work major Joanna Herrlin was also involved in the Jail Ministry Org fall semester of 2022 and agrees that articulating the Gospel to people from various backgrounds and meeting them in the middle is important. Sometimes, it looks like having long, in-depth conversations. Other times, it might look like giving practical steps for growing closer to Christ.
“One of the inmates I spoke to has memory problems from an incident she was in, so she would read chapters at a time and have no idea what she read,” Herrlin said. “I suggested she get a notebook and write down specific things after every few verses she reads so she can go back later and reread those points.”
Across jail ministry experiences, a common theme referenced was personal spiritual growth. Although students went in with the mentality of ministering to inmates, many were surprised with how beneficial these interactions were for their own lives.
“Especially at the beginning, I’d be nervous because I was going to offer encouragement to them, and I wanted to make sure I had the right words to say,” Dorrity said. “But so often, I’ll go and just be so encouraged by the faith of the person I’m talking to and where the Lord leads the conversation. It’s so evident that it’s in the Lord’s hands.”
Dorrity and Yun have been ministering to one of the inmates since the beginning of their time in jail ministry.
“Recently, he got sentenced to 10 years in jail, but he sees his time in jail as his greatest gift to him outside of salvation,” Dorrity said . “That’s how the Lord called him back, and he’s excited to go to prison because of the opportunities he has to share the Gospel with other inmates.That’s one of the most mind blowing things.”
Herrlin has also been encouraged by the testimonies of the inmates she worked with during her time in jail ministry. She has experienced a lot of growth, particularly in her desire and ability to share the Gospel.
“I’m a pastor’s kid, so I’ve shared my testimony in front of the church. But before joining jail ministry, I hadn’t gone out into the community and explicitly shared the Gospel,” Herrlin said. “As you keep doing it, it becomes easier, and I’m thankful for the experience jail ministry has given me, and I can appreciate the Lord so much more for how he transforms lives after hearing testimonies.”
Both inmates and students develop long-lasting connections that help them grow in their faith.
“It kind of gets to the point where you actually consider them your friend,” Lykins said. “You really look forward to going and talking to them and getting to know their story more. Sometimes, you just talk about the simplest things, but it just means so much for them to have someone to talk to, and it’s nice just to have a friend too that has different life experiences.”
Esther Fultz is a junior Social Work major and the Off-Campus Editor for Cedars. She enjoys thrifting, writing music, hiking and hanging out with friends.