Prison Bible studies change lives

Salvation Army prison ministry is alive and well in the form of Bible correspondence courses available through the Extension Studies bureau, a group of dedicated staff and volunteers under the direction of Major Faye Nishimura. The courses are sent to prisoners, who return them for grading and individual feedback.

Approximately 500 federal and state prisons participate in the West, with 21,340 students enrolled since 1993. With lessons available in both Spanish and English, the ministry continues to grow. In 2004 alone, more than 33,000 Bible lessons were graded by Nishimura’s team, which includes four employees and 60 volunteers.

Why do they do it? “Our mission,” according to Nishimura, “is to encourage Bible learning and spiritual growth by making Bible study material readily available to men and women in correctional facilities”–– but it is more than that. Graders take a personal interest in their students; birthday cards, Christmas cards, and letters of encouragement are a natural outflow of this ministry.

Grader Lou Schutzenberger, was “recruited” nine years ago. As a retiree, he admits that there’s no shortage of things for him to do, but he’s “a strong believer in individual people trying to make the world a better place to live.” Volunteering in the Army’s Bible correspondence program for prison inmates is Lou’s way of doing just that. In addition to grading lessons, Lou, like many of the volunteers, takes an active role in prison visitation. He is a believer in the program. “Many penologists and jailers don’t believe in rehabilitation. We do! We’ve seen hundreds of inmates who have expressed a deep, loving commitment to Jesus Christ. Some even hope to go into prison chaplain service when released…We in Extension Studies are able to touch lives in a dramatic way. We are able to bear witness to the power of Jesus Christ and to the personal satisfaction of a law abiding, responsible way of life.”

For Jan Fleming, the ministry she found as a Bible study lessons grader is “a beautiful gift.” Her own daughter is a deputy sheriff in Phoenix, Arizona with oversight of a dormitory of 140 women inmates. Both mother and daughter realize the possibility for influence on prisoners. Fleming shares that her experience with the Extension Studies program is “a daily blessing.” The inmates are more than names. Fleming “relates to them as a friend…Prayer requests are noted and special words of encouragement are written to them.”

As an incentive to stick with the program, students receive certificates and award Bibles, concordances or Bible dictionaries upon course completion. In addition to traditional correspondence lessons, an illustrated comic book is also available as an alternative teaching tool. The impact of this ministry is reflected in the cards and letters of gratitude received from prisoners, says Nishimura. “For some this is the only contact that an inmate has, and it becomes a precious lifeline, the difference between despair and hope.”

While the West serves as the national project manager for the Bible lessons used in Army correspondence courses across the country, each US territory provides lessons to prisoners in their respective states and can be contacted through the four Territorial Headquarters.

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