Feature

A Far North Oasis

A church plant blossoms behind bars

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“What an oasis!” I thought as I walked into a service in one of the newest churches in Alaska. The presence of the Lord was refreshing; the praise and worship coming from the nearly 200-member congregation was real and unfettered. The joy was genuine. God was here!

This was not a group nestled in one of the quickly developing neighborhoods of south central Alaska. It was in the state’s newest prison, Goose Creek Correctional Center, a medium-security facility in Wasilla that, at full capacity, will house 1,500 inmates.

Members of Sunny Knik Chapel (C&MA), 14 miles west of Wasilla, have been conducting visitation, Bible studies and chapel services for several years at Alaska’s Correctional Farm, located a short distance from Goose Creek Correctional Center. With the opening of Goose Creek, we were asked by members of Alaska Correctional Ministries (ACM) and State Chaplain Jim Duncan to help facilitate evangelical ministries within the new facility. We gladly assisted with what has become the first church plant within the Alaska Correctional System’s history.

We began by implementing Sunday afternoon chapel services and, with the help of a couple of other local pastors, mid-week services. ACM chaplains assisted the inmates in daily Bible studies and began Bible classes for interested inmates.

As the Goose Creek population began to increase, so did attendance at our services. The small area designated by the administration for a “chapel” was fast becoming overcrowded. We mentioned to a shift sergeant that at the rate of growth we were experiencing, we would have to soon move into the gymnasium. “That ain’t going to happen,” he replied. Two weeks later it did. Services are now held on Friday and Sunday nights as well. God has a plan!

This fledgling church has its own team of greeters, ushers and service leaders and has developed an outstanding praise and worship team that continues to expand its abilities. The pulpit is currently supplied by me and other local pastors who have come alongside to help grow this powerful ministry the Lord is developing.

The prison administration has made more than 40 hours a week available to us to conduct various Bible courses and leadership training with the inmates. In addition, some of the secular classes that prepare the prisoners to return to open society are being led by a couple of Sunny Knik Chapel members, Bill Johnson and Lynn Hoover, who have integrated biblical principles into the weekly curriculum. Evening time slots for additional classes are now being considered by the administration. Bill and Lynn also conduct chapel services in the Special Management Unit of Goose Creek two Sundays a month.

During one of the services, I mentioned to this multi-ethnic, multicultural crowd that from now on, I was going to refer this church as the “Oasis at Goose Creek” because of the refreshing touch of the Holy Spirit and the atmosphere the men were creating by enjoying their time together in His presence. Though our attendance fluctuates as the administration reorganizes the overall Goose Creek Center program (it is still in its infancy as a correctional facility), the number of believers within the razor wire continues to grow. During the month of April, 39 men dedicated their lives to the Lord and realized the true freedom Christ alone can supply.

With this growth there is hope. There is a plan to add to the existing compound a chapel with seating for a minimum of 500 inmates. Part of Goose Creek’s vocational training program will include this project, offering inmates an opportunity to learn various facets of the construction trade. State Chaplain Jim Duncan has set in motion a building fund account, through the ACM, to expedite the process, but the rate of progress is in the Lord’s hand.

I am seeing some of the same things developing inside these walls that I witnessed while ministering in a Latin American prison last year (see “A Glorious Church,” alife, Sept. 1, 2013); Christ is raising up a thriving church in the middle of a spiritually dark place. The Christians’ testimonies are being lived out in front of other inmates, and it is having a life-changing effect. The weekly inmate-driven praise/worship/Bible study hour has already quickly outgrown the existing chapel area. Inmates are waiting in line to give their personal testimonies. The administration has approved a request for an additional two hours a week for an evening time slot. It appears that this group, too, will have to move into the gymnasium to accommodate the large number of men who want to attend.

Please keep this young, vibrant church in your prayers. Pray that we as leaders will always have fresh bread, made with fresh oil, from the very kitchen of God, to serve and nourish this part of the growing family of God. We need His continued favor and covering as well. What an oasis!

No Man Is an Island

Carl,* an Athabasca/Yupik native, was defeated by life. The loss of his son to sudden infant death syndrome was a crushing blow to this young father, and like too many others, he used alcohol to try to ease the pain. The downward spiral did not take long. Carl turned his back on his wife and two daughters, driving him deeper into despair. Eventually, he found himself in prison.

At last, he thought, I am saved. I don’t have to drink anymore. Sadly, Carl was wrong. He was not saved. He wasn’t even close.

However, it was in a prison chapel service that Carl became acquainted with the living God and heard about the Father’s love, mercy and grace. When the chaplain asked if he would like to accept Christ as Savior, Carl responded with an emphatic no. Taken aback, the chaplain asked Carl what he did want to do.

“I want to know what is written in that book,” Carl replied, indicating the chaplain’s Bible.

With that, Carl began his walk toward God, one day kneeling and finding forgiveness. Carl soon learned that while salvation is free, following Christ is costly, especially in prison.

Within the correctional system, inmates discover, as Israel’s King David did, that their sin is always before them (see Psalm 51). The setting itself, combined with most secular rehabilitation efforts, cause prisoners to revisit their crimes again and again. Added to this, unstable believers can cause fellow inmates to stumble.

Carl experienced a setback when, after a Bible study, the inmate leading the group let loose a stream of vile profanity. Carl was horrified that someone could teach from the Word of God and then act in such a manner. “God, if this is how Your people
act, I don’t want anything to do with You!” he said. He threw his Bible into the trash and left God behind.

After being transferred to another prison, Carl met an inmate who was a rock-steady believer. One day this friend said, “Carl, the Lord has put it on my heart to ask about your walk with Christ.” In his pride, Carl responded, “Leave me alone! I want nothing to do with God right now!” This friend told Carl that the Lord would be waiting for him when he stopped running away. “The funny thing,” Carl says, “is that I never expected God to be in front of me when I thought that I had put Him behind me.”

This was the catalyst that turned Carl around. He began to grow in grace as the Lord changed him from the inside out, delivering him from tobacco addiction, gambling and selling contraband in the prison’s black market. Jesus brought Carl through the days of self-loathing, frustration at not being able to express his feelings in healthy ways and being critical of other Christians. As Carl understood more of Christ, he began to love the transformed Carl God was creating. He became more involved in the correctional center’s faith-based living community and found the strength and safety that comes with numbers within the family of God.

Today, Carl is nearing the end of his incarceration. He shares his testimony with others, encouraging those who are at rock bottom and ready to listen to the call of God. He is leading Bible studies in anticipation of going back to his village as a man of God. He deeply appreciates all those who have helped him.

Does Carl still have battles? Absolutely, but, as he says, “I have the promises of God, that He will complete what He has started in me. I know my coming to prison was not a coincidence. I needed to come to prison to slow down and find a true source for help and guidance.”

*Name changed

—Duane Guisinger

Past Alliance Life Issues

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