Pontiac Correctional Center was built in 1871. (Ironically, that is the first official documented season of Major League Baseball!) Pontiac is one of the oldest and most historic prisons in the United States. The exterior of the building is brick and intimidating. The towers loom over the corners of the perimeter of the facility. Yet, inside the walls of this prison, God was preparing the hearts of men who needed to hear about Him. It was a fitting place to open our 6th Central Illinois Saints Prison Ministry season.
Over the years, our team has really developed into a group of close friends. Several of my closest friends are on this team and I have grown closer in my walk with Christ because of the way they have encouraged and challenged me. The men that are involved in this ministry are the men you want going with you as you pass the rusty razor wire into a place that society finds scary and unapproachable. We began the day geared up for softball and made the trip up I-55 on a blustery day. On the bus, Jeremy Test shared a devotion on the times God uses the words ‘always’ and ‘never’. We brought up passages about how Jesus always forgives and how the Bible never says anything about how we must clean up our life before we become a follower. This was a really solid conversation that helped set the tone for the day. One other highlight we were looking forward to was doing our first ever Glove Exchange. This is a program that we use to exchange the old beat up gloves the prison has with donated, refurbished gloves.
We arrived at Pontiac, prepared to play softball, although the sky was dark and the rain was beginning to fall. Shortly after we had gone through security, the administration had made the decision to cancel the yard time due to the imminent bad weather that was coming. We tweaked our gameplan from softball to wiffle-ball in the prison gym. We saw around 50 guys in the morning session in the gym. We had played wiffle-ball before in Danville but this visit was an absolute blast! Both the Saints and the inmates were diving around the gym floor trying to slide into the makeshift bases and catch the plastic wiffle-ball as it bounced around the rafters and back onto the gym floor. We won 3 of the 4 games. The one game that we lost, the men at the facility won on a walk off home run! Watching prison teams win on a walk off hit/home run is one of the most fun things to see in this ministry; it is comparable to watching a team win the World Series or the Super Bowl!
In between the games, 2nd year missionary athlete, Drew Aberle, shared his testimony of how God brought him from a life of living for himself to a life of repentance and following Jesus. I preached from Mark 14 and John 3. I told the story about seeing the electric chair at Louisiana State Penitentiary this Spring and compared it to the death and the agony that Jesus had to go through. I talked about how He pleaded with His Father to let there be another way but ultimately it was God’s will to see that He was crushed on the cross. I stressed that is how seriously God takes sin and that is the same fate we deserve for our sin but there is hope because God loved us so much that He sent His son to die for us.
After the preaching time, Ray Koonce presented the inmates with the Glove Exchange gloves. It was a very cool moment to see the excitement of the men who received the gloves. Ray had been collecting these donated gloves for the last couple of years. He spent a lot of time making repairs, re-lacing, and getting them ready to be exchanged for older tattered ones from the next prison that wants to do a glove exchange.
We got to enjoy a very brief lunch with the men in their chow hall at the prison. We had a few brief discussions and handed out the Gospel of John to several of them. During the lunch break, we got word that the rain had stopped and that the prison yard would be re-opened! We got our softball gear together and headed out for some prison softball.
It was great to get out and play softball. Once we agree on a date with the prison we go to, the inmates will typically practice and prepare for a full day of softball. If we had to stay in the gym all day, that would have been great fellowship and would have led to several ministry opportunities, but it would have been a letdown to the men who were preparing to play ball!
Both games were short and competitive but we held on and won both of them! In between the games, Jeremy Haab shared his testimony. This was a special visit for Jeremy because he grew up in Pontiac and would often have soccer and little league games down the street from the prison! After Jeremy had finished speaking, Robert Cook shared the Gospel. Rob shares the Gospel clearly and it is a delight to see how the men on the yard react to him.
After the last game, we circled up on the pitcher’s mound and presented the MVP’s each with a New Testament Bible and prayed with them all before we left.
Overall on the day, we handed out 176 Gospels of John to the men we saw and we saw 16 of them make professions of faith. Thank you to everyone who prayed for this visit!
We are looking forward to traveling to Vandalia Correctional on June 10th for our next visit!