Freedom for the captives
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
—Hebrews 13:3 (ESV)
Today’s world is a mobile one. We use our phones to send emails, to text messages, and to access Facebook and other social media platforms.
One thing we don’t do anymore is sit down, put pen–to–paper, and actually handwrite letters. When was the last time you wrote one?
However, for incarcerated men and women, such writing is a way of life. Scripting a letter, placing it in an envelope, affixing a U.S. postage stamp, and sending it via “snail mail” is the way they complete the USA Eastern Territory’s Bible Correspondence Courses.
Participants complete a lesson, which includes several Bible verses. Then they finish a written test from a workbook and handwrite the answers.
They tear these pages from their workbook and mail them to Territorial Headquarters (THQ), where volunteers carefully and prayerfully grade them.
Graders mail the results to the inmates, along with other items, such as a Bible or Christian books.
Although correspondence is a word rarely used these days by the Z or even the Millennial generations, the “Bible Correspondence Courses” remains aptly named.
Major Sylvia Rebeck is now retired and teaching music in Alliance, Ohio, but she still fondly recalls her days spearheading the course.
That’s easy to believe when you consider Rebeck did the job for 27 of her 42 years as a Salvation Army officer. What inspired her was a simple, yet profound principle.
“My motivation was, these inmates need the Gospel,” Rebeck says. “They need to be told about it. I felt the Bible correspondence courses were one way of doing that.
“There was a burning within my heart. I was just excited about going to work. I wasn’t sure what I was going to get each day or what would come in. Sometimes the testimonies they would write on their lesson pages would bring me to tears.
“Corrections is still on my mind and one of those things I feel very deeply about.”
It may surprise people to know the Eastern Territory has 3,257 active students—both men and women—enrolled in its Bible correspondence courses, says V. Figueroa, the territory’s Bible Correspondence Program studies specialist.
“Some of the inmates take longer than others to complete the program,” Figueroa says. “They move around a lot, so it’s just a matter of keeping in contact with them.”
The program has averaged 538 new students per year over the last six years—or about 45 a month.
Figueroa said The Salvation Army is in contact with 61 correctional facilities, but services 1,122 around the territory.
The 12–course program features six basic and six advanced lessons. The basic courses include “Life of Christ,” “The Christian Life,” “The Early Church,” “The Early Beginnings,” “History of a Nation,” and “Survey Course.”
A holy calling
Figueroa, who has worked at Territorial Headquarters (THQ) for seven years, mails the 12 courses and also handles all the correspondence with inmates, chaplains, graders, and others.
“At first, this was for the sake of a job. But then, it became much more than that,” Figueroa said. “It’s really been my ministry here, and I try to do as much as I can with what I have.
“What relates me to the inmates is the fact that I’m also a growing Christian. My journey really began when I started here. I find myself growing a lot with them as I pray for their requests when they come in.”
Figueroa said she has a heart for the inmates, many of whom could be incarcerated on false charges or due to their addictions.
“For them to find a spiritual connection to help them walk through it, I think that’s very important,” she said. “People have made mistakes, but they also can repent.”
Figueroa said she often sends inmates copies of Salvation Army magazines such as SAconnects.
“When they ask for reading material or prayer, those stories really touch a special place in my heart,” she said. “I realize that, just by giving them a book or a Bible to read that has the Christian message in it, that’s a blessing in itself.
“In actually looking for the answers in the Bible and in their studies, the inmates also look for the answers within their lives. They’re connecting the Bible to their actual lives, which is a beautiful thing.”
Once an inmate completes a course, it is mailed back to THQ. Figueroa then can call on a team of 23 graders, including two who come to THQ every Friday—retired Lt. Colonel Lois Rader and her sister, Jean Pullen.
“The Bible Correspondence Courses are the best kept secrets in the Army,” Rader says. “We used to do a lot of open–air ministry. In some ways, it’s like we’re entering the lives of these people and going beyond the locked doors through these means.”
Seeing lives changed
Rader started grading lessons 11 years ago and said her motivation is an extension of her long career as an officer.
“My call to The Salvation Army was because I wanted to help people who maybe other churches didn’t reach,” she said. “I have always had a heart for needy people.”
Rader said that reading testimonies from inmates gives her a lift.
“We have people who are converted through our lessons,” Rader said. “We have people who say, ‘If it weren’t for me coming to prison, I wouldn’t have come to know the Lord.’ That’s very inspiring.”
Rader said the lessons require inmates to name influences in their lives. At least two have mentioned Mark Chapman who in 1980 shot and killed John Lennon. Chapman is now a Christian and helps other inmates.
Opening God’s Word
The lessons start simply because many inmates are not biblically literate and some do not read well, Rader said. However, they get progressively deeper and branch out into different aspects of the Christian life. Rader said requiring the inmates to look up Bible verses is important.
“That’s the key—to get them into the Word,” Rader said. “I will often write at the end of the lesson, ‘Keep in the Word.’”
Rebeck, who played an integral part in writing and revising the lessons over the years, agreed.
“The reason this program is so important is there’s so much to it,” she said. “I feel it gives inmates a chance to change their lives around. One thing you need to do when you come to the Lord is study His Word.”
Rebeck said the lessons help prisoners develop a consistent devotional life—and send a message to other inmates.
“You need to start right where you are,” she said. “Show other inmates that your life has changed. It gives them a basis for when they get out of prison.
“They need to see how God works. It says to them, ‘This is something I need to do daily. It’s something I need to do for the rest of my life.’”
Each lesson gives inmates a chance to make a decision for Christ and to apply what they’ve learned to their lives.
“I thought that was important,” Rebeck said. “It’s one thing to study the Word, but it’s another thing to be able to put it into action.”
A certificate is mailed to inmates who complete the courses. Sometimes, volunteers hand–deliver the certificates.
The new officer in charge of the correspondence courses at THQ is Major Philip Ferreira. He agreed that the call in Matthew 25 to visit the “least of these” in prison drives most people involved in the corrections ministry.
“We’re called to minister to ‘whosoever’ and that’s not an exclusive group,” he said.
A fourth–generation Salvationist, Ferreira remembers when every division had corrections secretaries. He also recalls growing up in New Bedford, Mass., when his corps would hold monthly services at a local jail.
“Somehow over the years, our prison ministry has fallen off,” Ferreira said. “I’m trying to look and find what ministries are involved in the corrections system, what they’re doing, and where the gaps are. I want to explore ways in which The Salvation Army can help fill some of these gaps. It’s essential. You not only have the prisoners who need help, but you also have the families of the prisoners.”
Ferreira said he hopes to establish goals and is reaching out to people such as Kennith Armstead, a former inmate and the assistant corps sergeant major of the East Northport, N.Y., Corps.
Armstead retired in 2017 after working 30 years on Riker’s Island for the New York City Board of Corrections, which included a stint as director of field operations. He saw a loss of hope and feelings of depression among the inmates on suicide watch or on 23–hour–a–day lockup. Also palpable was the despair expressed by prison guards.
“That’s how the ministry started for me,” Armstead said. “One day the thought came upon me that, no matter where I am, when I see people hurting, I have to do something.
“I would tell the inmates and the guards that hope is something you can rely on. When people say they have no hope, God provides hope. God is always there for you. When everyone else fails you, God won’t. Even when you were running, He was running after you.”
Armstead was recently named a representative to The Salvation Army’s national corrections committee. He also hopes to start a ministry soon to the Yaphank Correctional Facility on Long Island.
Big plans ahead
Armstead is well–versed in the prison system. He spent 15 years in state prison, from 1971 to 1986, after being convicted of accessory to robbery and murder. He was just 17.
“I used that time in prison wisely,” Armstead said, earning degrees in behavioral science and psychology.
Armstead would like to get local churches involved and help prepare inmates for re–entry.
“The jails are now full of people with mental health issues,” he said. “These people are going to get released eventually. If they don’t have the proper network and support once they get out, they’re going to go right back into the system.”
Ferreira said he is excited to get started.
“The more I learn about this unique ministry of The Salvation Army, the more of a passion I develop for it,” Ferreira said. “It’s a fantastic opportunity. My hope is that, as the passion ignites in me, I will learn how to make it contagious so that others can put this up a few pegs on their priority list. That’s my hope and prayer.”
by Robert Mitchell