One of the most memorable moments of the Chicago Cubs World Series was the rain delay in the 10th inning of Game 7. This allowed the team to re-focus and, perhaps, calm down. If you stayed up and watched the game, you will remember that the Cubs came back and scored two runs that put them ahead and that they ultimately won the World Series. We recalled that moment in jest as a team as we circled up on the pitchers mound as a team during the middle of our 5th game of the day yesterday. The men in the yard and the IL River CC All-Star team had to come off of the field to do an afternoon count. We were trailing in the game and at that point were physically and emotionally empty. We took a few moments to talk about the game and what could have been if we were less tired. I had shared with the team a passage in Matthew that I had recently shared with the youth group at our church (and had actually shared during a Saints Crusade devotion a few years ago). Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” I had planned on sharing this as a quick devotion on the bus, but our trip to Canton was a relatively short drive. As the inmates did count we discussed what it meant to be poor in spirit and defined it as realizing that we have sinned and there is nothing we can do to fix that. It took Jesus Christ dying on a cross for us to have a relationship with God. We talked about the different people in the Bible who had a poor in spirit attitude and brought up some examples of people we knew. It was a refreshing moment during an exciting, rewarding, yet grueling day.
The day began in a small meeting room at the Bartonville Hardees. This is the same meeting room that my wife and I will sometimes use when we have a date breakfast and I will also use that room when my teammate, Darrell Pine, and I sometimes meet after work to pray. It was pretty special to have that room full of Saints who were ready to seize the day and share the love of Jesus with the men we were going to see in the yard. We enjoyed a really good breakfast and a really solid prayer time before boarding the bus for the short drive to Canton.
We arrived and checked in with the LTS (Leisure Time Specialist), and she escorted us to the softball field. They had pulled out all of the stops and really prepared a special day. They had set up tents and did some extra work on the softball field. They had also planned a cookout on the field and brought in several picnic tables. We found out that they had a tournament prior to our arrival and they took the top three teams plus two all-star teams. We played the third place team first. We came out strong, scoring 11 runs in the first inning of game one. Innings like this are not the reason we show up but are still important because it sets the tone for the day. It lets the other team know that we aren’t a pushover church league team and that helps us get a little respect and credibility for later on in the day when we go to talk to them about Jesus. The other team battled back and made it a close game but we were able to hold on and win game 1. After the game, Darrell Pine shared his testimony and shared the Gospel. Darrell does a good job sharing his life story about how he had heard all of the right stuff about God growing up but ultimately didn’t follow Jesus until later in life. He let the crowd know that following Jesus was much more than head knowledge but was instead a lifelong commitment to following Him.
After our ministry time, we started game 2 against the 2nd place team. We went back and forth before finally pulling ahead and winning the game. After the second game was over, the LTS pulled us aside with one of the inmates who was carrying a box. They let us know how excited and appreciative they were that we had taken the time to volunteer our day. The inmate opened the box and took out a beautiful ceramic softball that had our team logo carved into it as well as our other logo painted on it. I have seen some special things over the years that inmates have done because they were excited about our visiting (a cake with our logo on it, fields being setup specifically for our visits with our name drawn in chalk, the Jimi Hendrix Star Spangled Banner in Danville, and several others that I am forgetting!) but this was very special and will be a story that we will share over and over again!
We had lunch at the picnic tables and enjoyed some cheeseburgers with the inmates. As we went through the line, we found out that the inmates in dietary had prepared a special apple cobbler and got some ice cream to go with it because of the special occasion (and it was good!). Our team did an excellent job of sitting by the men and striking up some really good conversations. Brent Gerber shared a story about a conversation he had with a man he had met that was an open homosexual who was really conflicted as to whether God could forgive him. Brent handled the conversation well letting him know that all sin is terrible and that Jesus had to die for it no matter what it was. Jeremy Test met with a younger man who had gotten into drug problems and had lost his relationship with his family and his 8 year old son. Jeremy shared his story about how he had made similar bad choices early in life and what God had done in his life to draw him closer to Him and helped him become the father and husband that God called him to be. He encouraged the young man, who was a believer, to find a solid church home where he could be around other believers to walk with him in his walk with Jesus.
We then got ready for our third game of the day. We faced the 1st place team. The game was close early on but they had a knockout inning when they scored 15 runs. After the game, Jeremy Test shared the story of working on the grounds crew for the Peoria Chiefs and how a Minor League baseball player named Tim Lemon (nephew of Tigers great Chet Lemon), had shared the Gospel with him and explained how important it was to have a relationship with Jesus. Brent Gerber then shared the Gospel and focused on the Nicodemus story in John 3 and really stressed why it was important to be born again.
As we took the field for game four, we found out that there would actually be a game five as there was a second all-star team that wanted to play us. We hung in against the first all-star team but they defeated us in a tough game. During the game, Darrell Pine had a really good conversation with a man between innings and shared the Gospel with him. The man made a decision to follow Jesus which is awesome and was a good reminder of why we do what we do!
We started game five and were down early. We chipped away but they maintained a four run lead most of the game. After the 3rd inning, the inmates left the field to do count. As I mentioned above, we had the chance to huddle up and do the devotion that we had planned on doing on the bus. I also shared with them the story about Darrell leading the man on the sidelines to the Lord and reminded them that no matter how bad we felt at that moment (and we were all feeling the affects of playing five competitive softball games!) God was still working in that prison! We started the last inning down 10-6. We got to be the home team for this last game and quickly made two outs to start the last inning. Brent Gerber then hit a single followed by a Jesse Miller walk. Ben Morrow got an infield hit to load the bases and bring up Drew Aberle. Drew hit a two run double. Jeremy Test hit a fly ball that the right fielder took a bad route on and that turned into a game tying triple! Joe Isbell then hit a flare between the 2nd baseman and the right fielder to win the game with a walkoff single! This was another memorable on the field moment for our team as we shook hands and shared some hugs with the inmate team.
On the day we handed out 120 Gospels of John and saw 19 men indicate that they decided to follow Jesus!
This was one of our most special visits as a team. We really got the red carpet treatment and were so blessed to be able to do this! We stopped at the Canon Dairy Queen on the way home and shared all of the stories we had on the day. Each place we visit is unique, but yesterday’s was so special. I am so blessed to share this adventure with such great men and I am so blessed to serve God in the prisons in Illinois!