(Note: written on 7/15/17 and posted on 7/24/17)
One of my favorite memories of growing up was being 13 & 14 years old and working on fly balls with my dad in the horse pasture behind our house. My dad would work construction all day in the Midwest sun and humidity and then come home and hit fly balls to me before dinner. I had actually gotten to a point where I could run down each fly ball pretty regularly and was a decent outfielder in my pony league days. Unfortunately, after pony league, my baseball career ended on the last day of Limestone Freshman tryouts on February 16th, 1994. Since then, I have spent most of my softball career in the infield either at 3rd, 2nd, or at catcher. I have no doubt the 13 year old Tom Gibson could have run down the ball that contributed to the reason we lost the game at Grafton that I am about to describe, but that kid in the horse pasture would have never believed that 25 years later, the love of the game of baseball would have intersected with telling men in prison about Jesus.
Today we woke up and loaded up the bus at 7:30 and made the 45 minute drive to Grafton. We had time to play one full game and do our Gospel presentation. I try to share more information about the ministry than I do the games, but this one, unfortunately, warrants some play by play time! I got to start the game in right field. This is a rare thing for me to do especially with the Saints. I have played a few times just to help out some with worn out outfielders, but that is not my usual spot. During the game we went back and forth with the inmate team but they had control of the game early on and had about a 4 run lead going into the 6th inning. I led off the inning with a walk and we rallied for 8 runs that inning. They didn’t score and then we didn’t score before they came to bat in the 7th. I don’t remember the exact details but they got a runner or two on base before they hit a hit fly ball to me that I was able to get under but not catch. That allowed a couple of runs to score and unfortunately, we lost the game. That is a crummy feeling, and I really felt bad running back off the field, past another inmate walk off celebration, to get back to our bench so I could hand out literature with my teammates. I had a really good time handing out literature down the left field line with Rob Fogel. Rob is one of the most genuine guys in the ministry and it was so fun not only to watch him interact with the men on the yard but it was fun to sit with him and listen to him talk about the history of the ministry, business, and life in general.
After the game we were able to get a quick lunch at the Circle K gas station down the street from the prison (Circle K chili dog + bag of Doritos + one of the huge aluminum cans of Arnold Palmer tea/lemonade= lunch of champions). After lunch, we headed into the main unit for a later afternoon double-header. While warming up, I was introduced to an inmate wearing a St. Louis Cardinals t-shirt. I had my Chicago Cubs wristbands on and proceeded to give him a hard time about his Cardinals shirt. He let me know that he was actually a Cincinnati Reds fan but his team that he played on in prison was called the Cardinals. I shook his hand and spent a few minutes talking to him before proceeding to give him a (good natured) hard time about being a Reds fan! We both played first base that game and each inning we left notes in the dirt for each other such as: “Go Cubs” and then we cross out Cubs and put “Go Reds!”. I came back with “Cubs Win!” and then he would write “Cubs When?”. That was a lot of fun. (I stole this idea from watching Mark Grace do this with Larry Walker one time during a Cubs-Rockies game in the 90s)
We had trouble keeping up with them on the field as they hit several home runs. Our ministry time went really well. Rob Fogel shared his testimony of how he came to know the Lord and Rob Brown shared the Gospel. During the ministry time, I was able to talk down the right field line with an inmate who already was a believer and had plans to start a Bible study in his dorm. I had time to pray with him and encourage him to be the salt and the light in prison. It is always really encouraging to see men in prison view their surroundings as their mission field.
During the 2nd game we really got off to a sluggish start on the softball end of things. We actually picked up an inmate to pinch run for some of our walking wounded. Between innings, I asked him where he was at with Jesus, and he told me that he and Jesus had their own thing going on. I asked him what that meant, and he basically let me know that he believed in Him and that he was trying to be a better person. This opened up a door to a really solid conversation about who Jesus really was and about how there is no amount of good that any of us can do to make up for our sins that we have committed. The good outweighs my bad philosophy is so prominent in not only prison culture but also in our American culture. This is a lie from the enemy and is not found anywhere in the Bible. To be empathetic, it does make sense from a certain standpoint as we view our worldly relationships through that lens. Someone may have done something to hurt us or make our lives difficult, but, if that person makes up for it by righting the wrong or getting better about whatever flaw that tended to offend us, we may tend to accept the new behavior and not judge them for their bad behavior. God takes our sin so much more seriously and He has every right to since He is God. God is a perfect judge and He has to punish sin, but, while we were still sinners, God made a way for His Son to take our punishment. I was able to talk about this with this guy, and, while he didn’t make a choice to repent and follow Jesus, he did seriously listen to what I had to say. I forgot this young man’s name, but please pray that God gets a hold of his heart and allows him to see the Gospel for what it really is!
After the game, we huddled up and talked behind the vans. Somebody brought up the guy in the Cardinals shirt again because they also had a conversation with him and heard his story about how he ended up there. He had told one of our guys that he had come to know Jesus before going to prison. He had committed a crime in his past and was never caught. Since he was now a believer, he was so convicted by the crime he had done that he turned himself in. That was a really powerful thing to hear. The Gospel does some incredible things!
After the games we had time to get cleaned up and go out for some ribs, chicken, and fish. The razzing and teasing that goes on during some of these meals would rival some of the most popular comedy movies today as we tried to come up with new nicknames for our teammates.
Tomorrow we are of to Marion, Ohio to visit North Central Correctional Camp and Main Units. Please keep us in prayer as EVERYONE at this point is banged up and worn out from the softball games!