For years, my family participated in Mercy Ministries through the second Sunday Community Dinner. Our children are grown and gone, and life has changed. So, when I heard about Tenth’s ministry at the Federal Detention Center at Seventh and Arch Streets and that they needed volunteers, I joined.

Of course, I still did not know exactly what I was signing on for. When I took the necessary training to be a participant, it sounded like I might have made a mistake! I was warned that I could be treated as an inmate if any trouble happened. That of course made me afraid, but I stayed. I stayed, based on the word of others who had been there for years and were not afraid. This gave me confidence—confidence that the Lord would keep me safe also.

When I first arrived at the prison, I needed photo identification. Using my driver’s license, I was given a key to a locker for my personal belongings, which I could not take into the prison with me. I then passed through a metal detector and a security door. One of my hands was stamped, and I was given the photo identification made for me during training. I signed a volunteer log, received a walkie-talkie (and instructions on how to use it), and was escorted by the prison’s Supervisory Chaplain (or sometimes, by the Imam). Next my stamped hand was checked, and then I was allowed to enter through a second security door. After that door closed, another security door opened to allow me to use the elevators. Volunteers travel to several floors where they are taken through another set of doors, which are followed by still another set of security doors leading to where the inmates are waiting for the Bible study. Security is a big thing at the prison for everyone’s safety.

On my first night, I accompanied a Tenth volunteer to her study group. The inmates were friendly enough and very interested in the Scriptures. To me they were serious about learning. We sang, we prayed, and we studied the Bible. Because we do not have enough volunteers, most studies are led by one person in each of the fourteen areas we cover. We never know how many inmates will participate but I believe that all those who appear were called out by God for that particular study. We have about one hour before we return through all the security doors to leave. Our hands are checked one more time and we turn in our photo identification and walkie-talkies; we empty our lockers, collect our personal identifications and leave—praising the Lord for using us at this place at this time.

While Tenth has the most volunteers, several churches are involved. Women volunteers outnumber men. There is also a need for younger people and Spanish-speakers.

I personally find this program rewarding because it allows me to share forty years’ worth of Bible learning. It also makes me study even more. I learn from the inmates as well. You see, most were brought up in the church or by someone who knew Jesus and tried to reach them as youths. This is their chance to hear one more time that Jesus loves them even in their present situation.

Since Jesus has saved you, have you been looking for a place to serve Him? Have you thought about being a cross-cultural missionary? You do not have to leave America to do that! Are you available for two hours on Tuesday evenings, or perhaps every-other Tuesday evening, to share God’s word the Bible with others? Pray about it because God can use you to minister to inmates who have been set aside for a time to think about their lives and how they got to their present situation. This is the time for them to hear that Jesus loves them and wants to change their destination in this life and the next one.

Can you help them learn about Jesus and His love for them even now? Will you allow God to use you at the Philadelphia Federal Detention Center? You will be blessed and energized when you go in and come out of the Center knowing that God used you, His servant, to Him praise in this way.

If you can help in prison ministry, please contact Enrique Leal.

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….

Matthew 28:19

This article was originally published in Tenth Press in May 2008. It has been updated by the original author.

© 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By Johnnie Mae Smith. © 2021 Tenth Presbyterian Church. Website: tenth.org