South Africa/Tanzania (MNN) — Crossroads Prison Ministries has biblical prison mentorship programs utilized in over 20 countries. Most recently, Crossroads’ International Director Cynthia Williams traveled to South Africa and Tanzania back-to-back to provide training and connect with the prison outreach teams in those countries.
“In both South Africa and Tanzania, the Crossroads program or Bible study and mentorship is being implemented by teams,” Williams explains. “There’s a coordinator and they have teams of volunteer mentors who work in their specific areas or regions in their country to ministry specifically to the prisons in those areas. These teams of volunteer mentors are connected with their local churches who support them as they go into the prisons to share Christ.”
Even though Crossroads coordinates prison ministry across so many nations and cultures, it all comes back to their mission, which Williams shares is “to connect prisoners with mentors or believers from the Church to form Christ-centered relationships around the study of God’s Word — and through that we just see lives and prisons and churches transformed, changed through the Gospel.”
Prison ministry in Tanzania
During Williams’ time with the team in Tanzania, they held a two-day training event for Crossroads’ area coordinators from all over the country, which she says was an incredible feat. “It’s actually quite a big country and some traveled over 20 hours by bus — quite a rigorous trip — just to attend this event.
“During that time, as I spoke and interacted with them, I was impacted over and over again that each one came with such a strong heart for prison ministry and commitment to carry it out despite very difficult conditions [and] personal hardships.
Williams shares the stories of two particular area coordinators who impacted her. First, she says, “One particular coordinator, she’s an older woman who is a widow. She doesn’t really have a source of income per se, but her commitment to prisoners is so strong and she has actually welcomed into her home a family of a prisoner, so the wife and the children of someone who is in prison because they have nowhere to go. So [this coordinator] has brought them into her home and is caring for them out of her own meager support system,” shares Williams.
“Another one of our coordinators is a military man whose heart was deeply moved when he saw how prisoners were treated and he decided he wanted to do something about it; but again, his own resources are so meager. But he now serves in five prisons in his area which house thousands of prisoners, so it’s just a huge task. After this training event, he thanked us many times over, saying, ‘Now I know how to do this ministry. Now I have the tools to do this ministry.’”
Prison ministry in South Africa
As Williams spent time in South Africa, she describes a unique focus of prison ministry there that the Church at-large should really embrace.
“In South Africa in particular, our teams are also focusing on not just the need for ministry inside the prisons, but that the Church needs to step up to also provide aftercare. It’s important to bring the Gospel and discipleship to the prisoner while they’re incarcerated, but it does not stop there. It must continue after they’re released during that very vulnerable time when their greatest need is for somewhere to live, somewhere to work, to make a living, and the need for a loving community that will support them in their re-entry. And who better to provide that than the Church?”
Williams saw the need for prisoner aftercare emphasized as well when she visited some of the Crossroads’ Bible study students at facilities in South Africa. “We met with our students for a time to share the Word, to hand out graduation certificates for those who had completed various Crossroads Bible study courses, but most importantly to connect with them, to talk with them, to hear their hearts, to listen, to pray with them, sometimes give them a hug, [and] to encourage their hearts.
“Over and over again, I heard them say, ‘I’m worried about what will happen when I’m released. I don’t have anywhere to go, I don’t have any family, my family has turned their back on me. What am I going to do?’
Crossroads and the team in South Africa are working on strategies to help local churches provide and improve aftercare for prisoners re-joining society as citizens — such as housing, job opportunities, and a loving Christian community.
Prisoner aftercare: a responsibility of the Church
In Tanzania, South Africa, and around the world, Williams shares, “We’re seeing a growing understanding that it’s the responsibility of the local churches in their country to care for and minister to the prisoners and returning citizens in their country. And this is actually resulting in a very strong commitment in these local churches to actually own the ministry, to take responsibility for it, to see it as a God-given mandate that they must carry out themselves. So Crossroads comes alongside to support and provide tools, but they are the ones who own these ministries.”
She adds, “This is not just a need in other countries around the world. You know, we can talk about it in Tanzania and South Africa, but this is a significant and pressing need right here in the U.S. as well. We have thousands and millions of prisoners here in the U.S. and 95 percent of them will be released one day. Where do they go?
“The churches in every community here in the U.S. and around the world need to be the place where returning citizens can land, where they’re welcomed with open arms, where they have a place where they can continue to grow in their faith, to get on their feet, to be firmly established on the path to a transformed life, a new life in Christ. I think we can learn a few things from our brothers and sisters in Tanzania and South Africa about how to minister to and care for prisoners, and that was certainly my takeaway from these two visits.”
Needs for mentors, prayer, and support
There are three different ways you can get involved today with prison ministry through Crossroads. Even just one commitment in some way could make the eternal difference in the life of a man or woman currently serving time in prison.
First, you can become a volunteer mentor with Crossroads Prison Ministries. All it takes is a bit of training, a commitment to their Christ-centered vision, and a willingness to write letters! Click here to learn more!
“We always need volunteer mentors here in the U.S. of course. [We are] always looking for those who are willing to give up their time to be a part of a prisoner’s life through our Bible study mentorship program. Here in the U.S., it’s a correspondence-based program. Around the world, it’s mostly hand-delivered, which is a wonderful, additional aspect of it. So the volunteer mentor piece is critical. We cannot do this ministry without our wonderful mentors — we have about 5,000 of them around the world.”
Williams also asks for your prayers. “Especially as we go into the world, there are many places where the enemy is very strong, and we need that prayer support to be able to see the doors open to go into the places that are dark and without Christ with the program.”
And finally, Crossroads provides prison ministry teams with all the necessary Bible study materials and sometimes even medicine, personal hygiene items, and food to give out as needed. But they need the financial support of fellow believers to make this possible.
“We, of course, can’t do this without the financial support of those that really believe with us that these prisoners even around the world need us to stand with them. These teams that are going in, they need us to stand with them in practical ways to provide assistance.”