Ordinary events, extraordinary results: Bethesda United Methodist Women prison outreach

By Margaret Comer Baker

EASLEY—Sometimes it takes awhile to realize God is up to something. The parting of a sea is obvious. But unrelated events being presented in an orchestrated fashion may take longer for us to realize something is “in the works,” something of the Divine.

That is what happened to our United Methodist Women at Bethesda United Methodist Church.

Who would think a group of ladies in a United Methodist Circle could attempt to impact 1,200 inmates and staff of a high-security prison within 15 miles of their church? Even we did not think of this. But God had a plan.

The events leading to the plan were not obvious. They built upon one another in an ordinary way. It began when a circle member, Penelope Wesley, attended an annual Mission u Conference.

At the conference, the Rev. Narcie Jeter, pastor of Point Hope UMC, Mount Pleasant, shared how she was inspired to start a prison card ministry in her church. (The September 2017 Advocate published an article about Jeter’s project.) Wesley also became inspired, but she was unaware of the necessary actions being developed for the realization of her idea.

After the conference, several circle meeting programs began having a prison theme. This was not by design: no collaboration, no overall plan—it just happened. First, there was a book review of “Miss Brenda and the Love Ladies,” a book about the efforts of one woman to make a difference in the lives of former women prisoners. Then there was a discussion of an article in Response magazine about preventing children from being channeled into the “School to Prison Pipeline.” Next, the Rev. Dan Batson, our pastor, presented a program about his work as a member of the South Carolina Parole and Pardon Board. Batson shared how he viewed his role on the board as a ministry to prisoners and victims, as well.

But God had not finished trying to get our attention. Thomas Moore, the executive director of JumpStart, and his wife, Linda, moved to the Easley area and started attending Bethesda. JumpStart is an organization that works to assist prisoners with re-entry to society. They invited Batson and his wife, René, to a JumpStart banquet.

The speaker that evening was Chaplain Larry Epps from Perry Correctional Institution, 15 miles from the church.

Following the banquet, René felt God was calling our group to send Christmas cards to the inmates and staff at Perry. She and Wesley had discussed a prison card ministry after the Mission u Conference. The idea had not been dismissed, but it had never come to life. Subsequent discussions with Epps and his blessings on this endeavor set the wheels in motion.

The plan was born. But the labor had not even started. Just any Christmas card would not be suitable for people living behind prison bars. Wishing them joy with friends and family did not seem appropriate. But God knows how to shop and guide in the process. The perfect card—which had John 3:16 on the cover and a simple message of encouragement inside—was found online.

Once the commitment was made to proceed, the cards miraculously went on sale for $4.99 per box instead of $7.99. The employer of a member of the ladies’ group volunteered to fund the cost of the 1,200 cards.

Yes, there were 1,200 cards to be signed and addressed. Each card would contain the same message, “praying for you,” and be addressed to “Beloved.” The project was announced at Sunday worship services. The congregation was invited to a drop-in card signing and encouraged to add these inmates and all inmates to their prayer list during the holiday season. A church member provided thoughtfully written examples of prayers for prisoners.

On the night of the card signing, more than 50 people showed up who completed the task within 90 minutes. In addition, calendars were marked and cell phone alerts set reminding people to pray for the card recipients.

The cards were delivered Dec. 4. One could say, “Mission accomplished, well done.” But this was more than a mission project checked off a list. It had the signature of the miraculous on it. Twelve hundred prisoners (including 200 in special lock-up) and staff at a high-security prison received a card that said God loved them. Some of them may have never been told they are loved.

Our group may never know the full impact this message had. But we do know God will accomplish His plan. As one circle member said, “It is exciting to see how God works. Knowing He works is one thing. Trusting Him to do so is another. But watching each step is awesome!”

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