There is an overlooked mission field in our own backyard, one full of people desperate for help, healing, and wholeness. It’s a place much of our society tends to dismiss, filled with people who believe they have been cast aside, forgotten.
But God does not forget his children.
At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus went into the temple and read a passage that could be seen as a statement of both purpose and mission:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me (the Messiah), because He has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor. He has sent me to announce release (pardon, forgiveness) to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed (downtrodden, bruised, crushed by tragedy).” (Luke 4:18, AMP)
Right now, nearly 2.3 million people are in the American criminal justice system. People who are bruised, crushed, and in need of the forgiveness of Jesus. People like David.
David has served ten years of a life sentence for his third driving under the influence offense, one that sent him to prison for manslaughter. Serving his time in an Oklahoma prison, he typically conformed to the rules and was well-behaved. Until one day, he wasn’t.
That day the warden received a call from the chief of security, informing him that David refused to leave his cell. Concerned he had been drinking a homemade alcohol prevalent in prisons, a team was brought in to physically remove David from his cell. Although he fought against them, he was eventually moved to a secure holding cell where the warden could meet with him.
The warden found him there, sitting on the edge of his bed, head in hand not acknowledging the warden’s presence, and not speaking. Although the report showed David hadn’t been drinking, there was no reason for David’s dramatic change in behavior.
Placing his hand on David’s shoulder, the warden asked, “David, what is going on with you?”
David looked up. “Warden, sometimes a person just needs to be touched.”
In American society today, prisoners are considered untouchable; viewed with fear and apprehension, even judgment. But there is no one Jesus refused to touch. Throughout his ministry we see him talking, eating, and healing people within every circle of society—without hesitation or judgment.
Jesus offers love and forgiveness freely and, through Alpha, we have the opportunity and are equipped to offer that same love and forgiveness.
In 2019, more than 600 criminal justice facilities in the U.S. provided Alpha to over 36,000 prisoners. These courses were led by volunteers who had attended Alpha at their local church or parish. These volunteers tangibly showed the love of Jesus to men and women society had tossed away and labeled as unworthy, broken, dangerous, or beyond help. Through Alpha, the prisoners were reminded that God does not label them—he loves them.
When Bryan came to Alpha at a prison in Texas, he didn’t think he was worthy of the love of others, or of Christ. Bryan was among the youngest group of soldiers to ever become a Green Beret, yet after he left the military, he spent the majority of his adult life in prison, having been incarcerated more than ten times. He thought his dysfunctional family and six abusive stepfathers had put him beyond help or healing and that he would likely spend the rest of his life in prison.
Then he came to Alpha and found Jesus. He was touched by the volunteers’ “willingness to spend time with those of us drowning.” He said, “I have learned to love again.”
Bryan left prison in 2015. He is now a plant manager, married, and attending college. He continues to thank God every day for the miraculous turn of events in his life brought about through faithful Christian volunteers, who chose to follow Christ’s teaching in Matthew 25 and visit those in prison.
Bryan isn’t the only one whose life was changed by Alpha. A 2016 Barna Group study found that 97% of prisoners said Alpha had a positive impact on their lives, 91% said they felt the love of Jesus, and 99% said they would recommend Alpha to their friends.
Sharing his experience of running Alpha in the prison system, Chaplain Casey Miner said, “I have facilitated the Alpha program for more than seven years at the Johnston Prison Unit. Watching the attitudes of the participants change for the better and noticing a reduction in disciplinary cases tells me it is working. I am constantly looking for ways to involve more men in Alpha.”
There are hundreds of thousands of people just like David and Bryan in our prisons and jails. People who are longing to feel the touch of someone who cares enough to visit them, someone who helps them to see and understand that God loves them.
This is a mission field many of us can find in our own backyard. It doesn’t require flights, long travel days, or massive planning sessions. Volunteering and running an Alpha within our local prison does give the community an opportunity to do as Jesus did—touch the untouchable and bring God’s freedom to those who are bruised and hurting—bridging the gap between captive, Creator, and community.
Learn more about how Alpha serves the prisons community and how you can get involved in this important outreach here.