The church on death row
LINCOLN, Neb. — Shackled at the waist, wrists and ankles, Carey…
Since his first visit to a Dallas County jail in 1971, Buck Griffith has spent his life taking the Gospel behind bars.
A minister for the Kings Crossing Church of Christ in Corpus Christi, Texas, he believes that effective prison ministry starts in the church nursery — with dedicated, nurturing volunteers who instill Christlike values into children as they grow up in the pews. That, Griffith says, is crime prevention.
In 2000 Griffith became president of NewLife Behavior Ministries, or NLBM, founded by fellow Church of Christ member H.M. Motsinger. An educator and counselor, Motsinger developed the New Life curriculum to assist inmates as they seek to change their attitudes and actions. The ministry now has about 12,000 teachers in the U.S. and impacts about 750,000 prisoners and family members per year, Griffith estimates.
In 2008, a second ministry, NewLife Behavior International, or NLBI, took on the task of training Christians around the world to work in prisons, public and private schools, Bible Colleges, private universities and churches. Motsinger retired as president of NLBI in 2017. Gary Bingham now serves as president.
In 1997, Motsinger and coworker Brad Davis received the Governor’s Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award from then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush. Last year, Griffith received the same award from Gov. Greg Abbott.
In a letter to NLBM, Texas Board of Criminal Justice chairman Dale Wainwright wrote that the award honors “outstanding volunteers whose contributions assist victims of crime, enhance public safety, promote positive change in inmate behavior and help offenders get back into society.”
Griffith: I was a reluctant volunteer. The church where I served as minister got a letter from a man in jail that was in for a very serious crime that had been committed in our community in Grand Prairie (Texas). I remember reading about it in the newspaper and hoping the guy got the death penalty.
I found out later that he grew up in the congregation I was preaching for. He had been in a young men’s training class, and he stood at the pulpit that I preached from. He grew up practicing how to lead prayers and singing and so forth.
He wrote us and asked for a Bible study course. He said if he died right then he knew he’d go to hell, and so I felt compelled. I still wanted him to get the death penalty, but I wanted him to have a Bible.
“Crime touches all of us. It’s not isolated.”
So I contacted a deacon in another church and offered to give him the Bible and the study course. This deacon asked me to go with him (to the prison), and I didn’t want to. But I went and ended up just getting hooked on it, seeing this guy change, and eventually he asked me to be the one that baptized him.
I really didn’t trust myself to let him back up until he quit bubbling, but I did. And then he had a friend, and I taught him and baptized him; and pretty soon we were off and running and never stopped.
Griffith: I think about all the families impacted by crimes. There has got to be a lot of pain and a lot of hurting, and I think that sometimes plays into our churches. At some point in our lives, most of us have been the victims of crime — from theft to fraud to assault. So there’s kind of a built-in resistance to doing prison ministry.
On the other hand, you have a lot of people in our churches who have loved ones who are in a county jail or maybe in a state or federal prison somewhere. Crime touches all of us. It’s not isolated.
Griffith: Obviously, the best practice would be a church that does all of those things. But every congregation can’t do all of those things, so congregations have to do what they can do.
Churches can partner to take advantage of their resources. For instance, a congregation not doing Bible correspondence courses that is going in and teaching classes and doing Sunday services in a prison can send those Bible correspondence course students to a congregation that just does Bible study by mail.
Churches should also work in crime-prevention ministry. For our congregation, that starts in nursery and cradle roll. Hopefully, that’s what we’re doing in all of our Bible classes — we’re preventing crime.
But when they get to be teenagers, and if they end up in juvie, we want to be in the juvenile detention facilities to say, “Hey, you messed up, but we still love you, and you’re still valuable to God. And we want to minister to you.”
When they are no longer a minor and they get sent to the county jail, we want to be there. If they get sentenced and they go to a state or a federal prison, we need to be there. We need to minister to their families, and we need to minister to them when they get out.
The most effective work is where you track them all along the way. You never ignore them. You build a relationship with them. And whenever they are released, you follow up with them in the community and work with their families.
Griffith: Yes. In Texas, for instance, volunteers are not supposed to make contact with inmates’ families. So what you have to do is develop a whole new group of volunteers that just works with the families. The big thing they don’t want is for you to be taking messages from the inside to the outside and from the outside to the inside. You never know when they are manipulating you to carry out a crime. You have to be careful.
Griffith: Both from the inmates and from the families. For instance, if I’m doing a “Managing My Anger” class with an inmate, I’ll say it would be great if you enrolled your wife, parents or significant other in this same course.
When the inmates have a chance to talk on the phone or have a family visit, it’s amazing how a lot of their visitation time is taken up discussing the NewLife Behavior courses that they are taking together.
Motsinger: We have added country after country. We have gone to the Bible colleges, mainly in Africa, and we have trained their students to take what they’ve learned from us and share it with the churches they preach for.
“We are training Christians to not only teach others but also to train them to train others.”
We encourage Bible college graduates to add teaching school to their preaching ministry. Throughout Africa, Bible is taught in public schools. So we train teachers who are already in the public schools to use our curriculum. We train church people so they can go into the schools.
One quick story: One of the guys that we trained at African Christian College (in Swaziland) went back to his native Uganda and was invited to a public school, a high school, and it was out in the boonies. He did a 12-hour seminar. At the end he offered the invitation — this is a public school building. Nineteen high school students asked to be baptized. Two high school teachers were baptized.
And then the high school principal came to the preacher. He said, “I understand what you’ve been doing here. You’ve got something that nobody else is teaching. Therefore, every Sunday you are to use our school building as your church building.”
So what started out as 22 baptisms is now 60-something. And that’s just one of the stories that we hear. We are training Christians to not only teach others but also to train them to train others. We feel this is Paul’s message to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:2.
Motsinger: We started in South Africa in 1998 and Russia in 2000. Success in Russia was not as easy as in Africa. Still, NLBI has spread into 30 countries.
From 2008 to 2019, our 35 Certified Trainers have trained and certified just over 30,000 adults outside the U.S. to become NLBI instructors.
Our Certified Trainers still teach in public and private schools and Bible colleges, but they also train churches and church leaders, abandoned women, refugees and orphans. They train in prisons and in government programs. Mayors from multiple cities take our courses. Government officials have been trained. A nursing school uses our Bible-based curriculum.
The outcomes are tremendous life changes. In fact, NewLife Behavior International’s slogan is “Restoring Hope. Transforming Lives.”
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