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Sugarland

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Six months after we arrived in the Philippines, my wife, Cleo, a teacher at Manila Bible Institute, was invited to speak at an afternoon worship service at the Correctional Institution for Women. She noticed two incarcerated women were pregnant, so she asked the pastor, “What will happen to their babies once they’re born?”

“Unless family members take them home,” he replied, “the babies will be placed in the care of social services.”

Cleo’s heart broke with the thought of newborns being taken away from their mothers. Then she imagined the children left behind when their moms were put in prison.

What if a child gets sick and wants a bowl of Mom’s soup? What if they just need cuddling but now have no mom to hug? What if there is no food in the house—will children sleep with empty stomachs?

Cleo’s wheels started turning, and she asked me, “What if we start a ministry to help these children?”

At the time, our level of support as marketplace ministries workers was enough for only one missionary. “We moved to the Philippines in faith that the Lord would provide for our needs,” I said. “There’s no way we could start a new work right now.”

By Faith

Two weeks after our conversation, Cleo had a good afternoon of quiet time with the Lord. Rather than addressing Him with her requests and settling for His anticipated revelations that He is a “good, loving, and wonderful God,” she allowed the Holy Spirit to speak to her.

The sugarcane juice is boiled in big cauldrons over a fire for several hours. (Illustration by Kenneth Crane)

While waiting, Matthew 25:35–36 came to mind: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

Although certainly sounding like a “go” to start a prison work, she couldn’t accept it, knowing one or two verses cannot be construed as God’s calling her to such a ministry. After all, relying on two isolated verses is bad exegesis and application.

Several weeks later, Cleo went to a scheduled physical checkup at a hospital clinic. The office assistant informed her the doctor was holding a Bible study for nurses. Interestingly, Cleo heard him say loudly and clearly in an adjacent room, “Noah built the ark although there was no rain. He took God by faith.”

Hearing that, Cleo shivered. She assured herself, That was just a coincidence. As important as faith is, what I just overheard is not enough evidence that God is calling me to start a prison ministry.

Time to Start

Over a year later, a miracle happened. A missions agency called us about a donation for the prison ministry. The agency contacted the donors, who said they had received a significant amount in a car-crash-and-medical settlement and decided to send us $15,000 to use in whatever ministry we wanted.

Workers wear full covering from head to foot while cutting the sugarcane in the fields. (Illustration by Kenneth Crane)

Cleo’s eyes welled up with tears. She realized God was calling her to start a ministry to incarcerated women and their children.

Shortly after that, Phil Skellie, director for CAMA Services at the time, released $5,000 to add to our total; the Sunday school class of a friend in Ohio sent its share too. With these confirming signs, we began our scholars’ subsidy program to help the children of female prisoners to stay in school.

Although there is no tuition in Philippine public schools, a major challenge among the poor is saving enough to buy transportation fares to and from school. If the family’s income drops too low, kids are often put on the streets to sell food, flowers, and other such products to help their families survive. Many do not finish grade school.

Through Ina-Inakay Center, Inc.,—meaning “mother and fledglings”—we now give modest scholarships to 40–50 students at a time, ranging from grade school to college age. Another program allows those aided by the ministry to have worship services, Bible studies, and prayer meetings and to fellowship with Christian family and friends. This program has had a positive effect on those who have participated and has given all a better outlook on life. See inakay.com for more information.

Sweet Success

While our partners helped us begin Ina-Inakay, continuing it comes with a cost. When I received a small inheritance from my aunt, I used it to set up a crude sugar production mill. We call it Sugarland. Sugarcane farmers 80 miles northwest of Manila had no facility to produce their own sugar, so through modest rental fees, we were able to raise some money for our ministries.

Crushing sugarcane with a diesel-powered roller system (Illustration by Kenneth Crane)

When Cleo’s youngest sister visited the site, she suggested expanding it to produce a more expensive kind of sugar—muscovado—what cafés use for sweetening coffee drinks. Funders came on board to help develop the business, which assists in supporting the prison ministry scholarships.

Today farmers continue renting the crude sugar production site. Instead of money payments, we often accept sugarcane from them (a kind of barter system). We also purchase sugarcane from other farmers and sometimes lease and purchase fields to provide the raw material for the mill.

Project Countryside

Our most recent Inakay addition is a 24-acre farm. It’s a place for women released from prison who have nowhere to go. Perhaps they don’t have a family; maybe their families don’t want them anymore. A community near Sugarland has opened their arms to these women.

Released inmates screened by the Philippine Bureau of Corrections and Ina-Inakay will live on the farm and plant and harvest crops like rice, vegetables, and various kinds of trees and their fruit or leaves—bananas, papaya, mangos, and moringa—as well as raise fish. They will also help at Sugarland during the sugar production season. The sale profits from the crops will be used for their salary.

These are ways we play the music of Jesus’ love and truth to those in need.

***

Watch President John Stumbo tell the story of the young daughter of a female prisoner:

Watch Cleo Undheim explain how Ina-Inakay ministers to women and their families:

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