The Undiscovered Field

By FBOP Chaplain Carlos González

undiscovered-fieldImagine this: You are called to become the pastor of a church in the town referred to as the “middle-of-nowhere.” The population is about 1,600, all male, all have problems with the law (some still proclaim they are innocent), and there is one social class. There is one “supermarket” (AKA, the “Commissary”), there is one standard of life, everyone eats in the same place, there is one police station, one mayor (the “Warden”), one recreational park, one hospital, one school, one factory, and of course, one church.

This town’s population is made of men from all parts of the world. Different languages are spoken, and different cultures and practices are represented here. In “middle-of-nowhere,” 15 different religions are practiced.

One thing “middle-of-nowhere” is not missing is rules. There are hundreds of rules, procedures, policies, and laws enforced in this town. The residents of “middle-of-nowhere” work in certain areas, but everyone is in charge of the rules. “Middle-of-nowhere” residents work in certain areas, but the people keeping the rules and providing the services in this town do not live here, they are “outsiders” (“staff”).

As a pastor, you are one of the “outsiders.”

The big thing about this town is “SECURITY.” Everything is driven by it, and everybody (including you) is responsible for it. Now, as I said, you are called by God to become the pastor of the church in “middle-of-nowhere.” If you accept God’s call, there are few conditions that “middle-of-nowhere” expects you will submit to.

First, you are to be the pastor for all “middle-of-nowhere” residents. They expect that you will express God’s love to every residents (even those that do not attend your service) and to the “outsiders” as well.

Second, you are to open the doors of “your” church to all the different religious groups that may be represented in this population. “Your” church will become a religious center, if you will. You are not expected to lead all services, but to coordinate the speakers that  may be needed. You should be prepared to answer any religious question that the “mayor” or any other “outsider” may have.

Third, you are to maintain “security” in the church and elsewhere. Finally, you are to be the “conscience” of the town. It is expected that you will bring understanding, and promote fairness between the “outsiders” and the residents; it is hoped that you will be the town’s “peacemaker.”

If you accept this “call,” with these conditions (there may be  more),  you will have accepted the “call” that I accepted five years ago.

My ministry is not like any other. I can do almost everything a local pastor does in his church with regard to ministry activities. And there are some “advantages.”

First, I do not have a governing board. Second, I do not have to be concerned with the offerings and tithes of the members of my church; the “town” provides for all of my needs. Finally, I do not have to be concerned if the members of my church do not like the sermon from last Sunday. There is no other church in town. The “disadvantages” are some of the “conditions.”

This ministry is not like traditional “missions,” either. You are in a missionary field, but an undiscovered one. You will have the opportunity to witness to individuals from all parts of the world. You will be exposed to different religions, and you will use your classes on “contextual theology” a lot. You will not see the real fruits of your labor/ministry, because the members of your church may leave to return to their hometowns far from “middle-of-nowhere.”

I arrived at the Federal Correctional Complex in Victorville, California, on August 1999. I was honored to be the one chosen to “activate” the largest medium security level institution in the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBOP). It houses more than 1,600 male inmates; the average sentence is 12 years (some have life-sentences).

A small Federal Prison Camp (we call it “Satellite”) houses more than 250 female inmates on minimal security. In about four years this will become the largest prison complex in the FBOP across the nation.

We received our first inmates in June 2000. I had three inmates in my first Spanish Protestant Service. Today we have a regular attendance in the high 70s and a weekly Bible study with attendance in the high 30s. On the last Easter Sunday we had our first baptismal service ; 15 new believers were baptized. We celebrate monthly Communion Services, and we are building the Kingdom here in Victorville.

I believe that the greatest “question or issue” a Chaplain in the FBOP must solve is “how to be a slave to everyone,” to meet the needs of those from other religions. I want prove to the inmates that I am fair and consistent with all, that I am a man of integrity, and that I have love for them.

Paul for me shares the deep truths of what I consider to be the prison ministry in 1 Cor. 9:16-23. He says; “I make myself a slave to everyone” (1 Cor. 9:19). When you do ministry, you should give yourself. We should give the best of our abilities, of our knowledge, and of ourselves . . . we know that doing so is not enough. But by giving the best of us, we are offering the best to God.

Furthermore, we give ourselves by understanding that speech is not all that preaching is about. Paul shares a very unique and complicated concept here. He says: “To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews.” The word in Greek used here is the verb well known “ginomai.” A very common verb with a profound meaning in this passage.

We understand that Paul is not saying to be a Jew, but rather to become like a Jew. Not to be one, but to have a likeness of one. To be able to find “common ground” by which the receiver of your preaching and ministry can find himself in you, can identify with you.

I appreciate how Paul describes this, “I make myself a slave.” Servanthood is the best way to preach and to do ministry. I like to think that by facilitating, supervising, and protecting the religious rights of all inmates I am doing precisely that. I am showing to the inmates that I am a man of God, someone that wants to serve and help them, so that my preaching, ministry, and testimony will be more effective with the sole intention that I “may save some.”

I believe that the greatest “challenge” for a chaplain in the FBOP is to make disciples. Many of the believers that we care for are believers that have not received “sound doctrine.” Most of the time, it is not their fault. They try to serve the Lord in a very difficult environment.

Imagine being a “Christian” in a place where you do not have privacy. You do not choose your roommate, the one who works with you, and who goes to church with you. There might be “non-Christians” trying to convince you that they have the “truth.”

You can deceive no one. You have to learn to be genuine. There is no privacy here. So, everyone knows your failures.

You also try to grow despite limited access to literature, limited access to the fellowship of the “saints,” and limited access to “outside” ministers. Therefore, it is a very difficult “Christian life” and easy to be exposed to the wrong teaching. So I have to learned to be patient, understanding, and loving, helping them to learn, and in most cases, to relearn Christian doctrine.

It is a unique ministry. It is a blessing and honor that the Lord has given me to help the [least] of His brothers (Matthew 25:40).

Let me share some of my prayer requests. First, pray for you! Pray that the Lord will open doors for you to become involved in prison ministry.

I remember Dr. David Rambo calling us to “re-evangelize America.” If you want to see the real struggles of America, visit a prison.

In the FBOP alone, we are growing at an astronomical pace. Since 1970 we have more than doubled our inmate population. If we keep we keep up this  growth pattern, our population will triple by 2015. We have to open an average of three new institutions per year in order to keep up with the growth. The sad part is that this is only a reflection of our communities. You need to be a part of these . . .

Pray for ATS and other Alliance college students, that they may discover this “undiscovered field,” that the Lord will send ministers to this field. When I went to ATS, I knew of some students that had no sense of what the Lord wanted for them to do.

Today, the FBOP has a great need for committed chaplains. They are required to be less than 36 years old, have an M. Div. and two years of full-time ministry. Please, pray that those in ministry studies will be sensitive to the Lord’s call and the Kingdom’s needs in this area.

Pray for Rev. Philip Harden (FCI Fort Dix), Rev. Mark Nevius (FCI Tucson) and me (FCC Victorville). We are your representatives in the FBOP. Pray for our wives and children.

Finally, pray for your “brothers and sisters” in churches like the one in FCC Victorville. They need your prayers and our ministry. Pray that the Lord’s light will shine and break thru the darkness that envelops most of our prisons.

Chaplain González is currently the senior chaplain at a large federal prison in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania; in this capacity, he supervises several prison chaplains.  He has also served as senior chaplain in a federal prison in Miami, Florida. Continue to pray for his ministry, his family, and his safety.


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