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Interview: Stephen James, director of prison ministry, Christianity Explored Ministries

09 August 2019

‘I was a cleaner, and not really meant to be there’

I experienced God at the age of eight or nine, looking at the beauty of creation and knowing that there was an intelligent designer behind our world. But I didn’t know or have a personal relationship with this God for another 15 years, when I was sentenced to four years in Shrewsbury Prison.

I started to go to chapel. Prison can be an introspective experience, making you think about life, what’s got you there, and if there’s anything beyond. I wasn’t really getting answers, but, in 1997, the chaplaincy brought in an organisation, Victory Outreach, from south Wales, who held a meeting in the prison wing.

I was a cleaner then, and not really meant to be there, but I overheard ex-prisoners there talking about how Jesus changed their life, and that was a crossroads moment for me. I’d thought that prison hadn’t changed me, and I expected to go back to the same lifestyle of drugs. I had to ask about this, and asked for a Bible. That was the start of my conversion.

Christianity Explored Ministries provides outreach and discipleship courses which have been translated into about 60 languages, and are used in more than 110 countries. We have three core resources: Christianity Explored introduces people to Jesus from Mark’s Gospel; Discipleship Explored introduces them to what it means to be a Christian from the Letter to the Philippians; and Life Explored introduces them to the character of God from a range of Bible texts from the Old and New Testaments. The prison edition is used in at least 60 prisons in the UK.

I’m the director for Prison Ministries, with support from the wider team in London and Edinburgh, UK Prison Ministries, and churches who use our materials.

In the prison edition of Christianity Explored, we make Mark’s Gospel accessible to visual, oral, or tactile learners. We use flip charts, drawings, and ask shout-out or small-group questions before looking at a single verse, rather than tackling large sections. Building good relationships over the eight sessions is also key.

Internationally, we have partnered with Prison Fellowship International to develop this course under the name The Prisoner’s Journey. We have created some testimonial videos to go with it, showing prisoners from all around the world talking about what the gospel has meant in their lives.

It’s running in 500 prisons in 39 different countries now, and we’re hoping to take this up to 50 in the next two years. The global prison population is about ten million.

The Prisoner’s Journey has the tagline: “Come and listen to Jesus, the prisoner”, because we don’t normally see Jesus as a prisoner.

There are 12 full translations. I prefer the straight English training — translating slows you down, and I’m not the most patient of guys — but one of the encouraging things is how the gospel rekindles everybody’s passion to take it into prisons.

My role is to train and support people from local churches or prison ministries and chaplaincy teams who deliver our courses. When I’m in the UK, I go into the prisons on a Monday and Thursday to deliver our courses myself, and speak in prisons and churches, men’s breakfasts, and training events.

I started work with Christianity Explored Ministries in 2008, because they were looking for someone to work for prisoners, and my pastor told me about the opportunity.

I’m the youngest of five children, born in Stoke-on-Trent, and I lived in Leek till I was 25. We lived in a two-bedroom council house, and my dad was a drinker, always in the pub. I left Leek in a police van and never returned, only to visit.

Going back into prisons with Christianity Explored Ministries was the bravest thing I’ve ever done. I went back as a learner: I didn’t know how I was going to do the course, how I would talk to prisoners, how to relate to the chaplaincy. . . There were a lot of unknowns, but, after a lot of prayer, I had a sense that, if God wanted me to do it, there wouldn’t be anything to worry about.

How can you empathise with and understand someone sitting in front of you if you haven’t gone through the same — even the hard stuff in life? I think it happens so that we can share and help others when they’re going through it.

I started by facilitating a restorative-justice course in Cardiff Prison, called Sorry, and building from that. We need a system that treats prisoners as humanely as possible, with the focus on the restoration of the prisoner and not so much on punishment. Prisoners have to return into society, and one who has been restored rather than punished is less likely to reoffend.

Things don’t move quickly in prisons — getting access to prisoners and encouraging them. It took quite a long time to build up momentum. As my experience and confidence grew, it was easier.

As soon as they know I’m a former prisoner, people listen much more intently. Saying this, everyone has a story to share, and you don’t need to have been in prison to captivate the prison audience. And we all struggle with some form of addiction, big or small, at some point. Some prisoners experience complete deliverance from addiction; others never seem to be able to overcome the thing that blights their lives.

Christianity in prison depends whether you became a Christian in prison or if you’re a Christian going to prison. The latter is a very painful experience, and the former quite liberating. Prison seems to bring you closer to Jesus and your need for him in your life; and, yes, you do see the freeing experience that prisoners go through as they discover Jesus for themselves.

I went back to education, and earned a degree in sociology. Now, I live in the beautiful town of Swansea, in south Wales. I’m married with two daughters, and we love the beautiful beaches and walks here.

Your church can visit and support prison chaplaincy if you have a prison close by. If you don’t, you can think about supporting a prison ministry and inviting them to speak at a meeting. Churches can offer support to the chaplaincy, to be open to receiving those coming out of prison and integrating them into the local church family.

This needs diligence. There’s protocol to follow; so you need to get advice from prison ministries and the chaplaincy teams when reintegrating ex-offenders into your church. Get to know a prisoner before they leave prison, and ask if they have any conditions about their release, not allowing them to go near certain people or places. Some may have life-controlling issues — drug-addiction, alcohol — that don’t necessarily go away just because they’ve come to know Jesus.

Churches need to be aware of the complexities, and put safeguards in place for both the church and the ex-offender, because both are vulnerable, and someone needs to be supportive and accountable for that relationship.

Poor workmanship and laziness make me angry. I have a background in construction, and we always delivered quality work, with care and skill.

I’m happiest when I’m fully committed to Jesus in all areas of my life.

Jesus is our hope. Drawing closer to Jesus always brings my life back into eternal perspectives.

I pray most for forgiveness for my lack of prayer life, and my own self-reliance.

If I was locked in a church with someone, I’d choose to be with anyone who doesn’t know Jesus yet, so that we could talk about why Jesus is the best news you will ever hear. Then, hopefully, we’d have another follower of Jesus. That would be time well spent.

Stephen James was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

www.ceministries.org; pfi.org

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