Prisoner packets are a hallmark of the holiday season for many South Carolina Baptists. Collected for more than 40 years, the packets of stationery, personal hygiene products and gospel literature are often the only gift received by inmates living in institutions across the state. The packets are also just one of many ongoing prison ministries and represent different forms of partnership.
“We are called to engage the inmate population year-round, walk intentionally and demonstrate discipleship, not just give a gift at the holidays,” says Jon Jamison, SERVE team leader with the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC).
Volunteers met Dec. 7 at Shandon Baptist in Columbia to check and finalize the 2020 packets before chaplains distributed them the following day to roughly 18,000 inmates. A total of 21,956 packets were collected, and the surplus has been divided among three institutions to share with individuals as they are processed into the system in the coming year.
New to the packets this year is a 30-day devotional booklet written by current and former inmates in the Jumpstart program and printed with SCBC support. According to Jamison, the packets and devotional are collaborative “gifts from our churches. Through the devotional, inmates are serving and ministering to those who they most understand.”
Jumpstart Director Cary Sanders leads the 40-week intensive discipleship program that is offered in most South Carolina prisons. As a former inmate, Sanders knows the excitement a Christmas packet brings and the opportunity it represents to reach an audience receptive to the hope of the gospel. The idea for the devotional came to him after a project from student summer interns yielded a collection of inmates’ life stories. Additional volunteers from Grace Church in Greenville helped turn Jumpstart alumni interviews into the devotional format.
“When inmates get this packet, they will see pictures of people they were incarcerated with and read stories that will put God’s ability to rescue and restore on display. The cross is sufficient to forgive any sin and transform any sinner,” says Sanders.
Jamison agrees, adding that “Cary came to faith in prison, which is a reminder that this is not a forgotten people group. We are called to continue to serve and minister. Inmates’ lives are being transformed behind the walls as a result of ongoing relationships.”
Understanding the value of prison ministry is what prompts Emily to volunteer at the packet assembly. She and her school group have served for several years and her father has experience in prison chaplaincy. Emily says the packets are “a good opportunity to give back” to those whose actions may have landed them behind bars, but who are still valuable to God.
Other ministry partners joined in the assembly day, including groups from Disaster Relief and Baptist Collegiate Ministries at Francis Marion University (FMU) and the University of South Carolina (USC). It was Breanna from USC’s first time assembling packets and she was glad to help even though “we won’t see what happens when they open these up, I know God can use it.” Deanna from FMU called her first experience volunteering with the assembly “cool” because she knows the packets will reach into the three institutions located in her hometown of Bennettsville.
It’s this spirit of continuing ministry and engagement within the community that Jamison works year-round to cultivate. SCBC churches around the state are active in ongoing discipleship, Bible study and mentoring ministries built through relationships with inmates. Jamison invites South Carolina Baptists to take their next step beyond Christmas packets and into ministry behind the walls.
William Harrison is director of Jumpstart’s Outside Program that shepherds released inmates through a voluntary one to two-year program giving biblical discipleship and other aspects of practical assistance as they resettle into the community. With a 96 percent success rate, Jumpstart is doing something right. Harrison says a former inmate’s testimony is the most powerful tool in reaching lost inmates, which is something he knows personally.
“It’s exciting and gives hope for inmates to know someone they did time with or saw outside in the yard and is now out in the community, joining churches, returning to their families and becoming the people they were supposed to be from the beginning in the Kingdom of God,” Harrison says.
“Jumpstart volunteers are working through real life issues with real people who are transparent about their need for God’s grace in their life. In prison, people admit to problems with addiction or how anger has led them to do things they are ashamed of. We can talk about how God can redeem them from that,” Sanders says of the value of relationship.
For his part, Harrison expresses thanks for the eternal impacts of a Christmas packet and holiday cards sent from church members to inmates. “People inside have burned so many bridges and are so deep in darkness that their families don’t have anything to do with them anymore. To receive something from someone that has never met them but has a heart for Jesus is like a joy that only comes from having shared the gospel with people others have given up on,” Harrison says.
Click here for more information about SERVE ministry opportunities, or contact Jamison at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Jumpstart or to purchase the devotional, visit www.jumpstartvision.org.