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‘Incarceration has saved their lives’

Through prison ministry, a Christian couple hears great confessions from the inmates they serve.

‘Iwould never have listened to you out there.” 

Norman Dean hears comments like that as he shares his faith behind bars. 

Norman and Kathy Dean

Norman and Kathy Dean

The Oklahoma native and his wife of 46 years, Kathy, have spent the past two decades studying the Bible with inmates at county jails and state prisons. The ministry fills their retirement years with vigor, excitement and gratitude, said the Deans, who worship with the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. 

“What keeps our students coming back week after week is they often perceive a great need in their lives, “ Norman Dean said. “Some have been incarcerated a number of times. … The ones who come to our studies and stay often tell me that incarceration has saved their lives.”

Norman Dean writes the lessons he uses. His wife and her teaching teammate serve in women’s facilities, prayerfully attempting to share the message of salvation — as much as they can in the time they have. They never know if they’ll see their students again.

“It’s important for volunteers to be consistent,” she said. “They have been let down so often in their lives. I am sure I would be a totally different person if I had grown up like so many of them have.”

Among the female inmates’ biggest concerns are their children, Kathy Dean said.

“They don’t always talk about them, but we pray for their children — and that the children will know their mothers love them. There are always lots of tears shed during those prayers.”

What attracted you to prison ministry? 

Kathy: I had never considered going into prison ministry until Norman got involved. With a firm nudge, he encouraged me to join a group of ladies going into a local women’s facility to “see what it was like.” That first visit was over 20 years ago, and to this day that is how I spend my Sunday evenings. 

“I suppose the biggest risk might be seeing the Good News we share with others not being accepted and followed.”

The main attraction this ministry holds for me is getting to know the women. They are so grateful to have people who care about them coming to see them every week.  Our being there each Sunday with a message of hope brings an element of stability and consistency to their lives, something that has rarely been there before.

Norman: Like so many other people, I long wanted to study with people to show them how to become a follower of Christ. I just did not find an opportunity or environment that excited me quite like that of prison work. The changes in the lives of the people we have baptized are, many times, very dramatic. It’s a great blessing to be a part of that.

Tell me a bit about what you do in prison ministry.

Norman: I go to a county jail and a prison to distribute Bible devotional material and to advertise our Bible correspondence program. I also go to three other jail and prison facilities to conduct or assist with Bible studies. 

The correspondence program is an excellent work that allows inmates to study the Bible at their own pace by mail, without cost. It is from this program that many of our face-to-face studies and baptisms begin. 

Kathy: When we go into the women’s facility each week, my coworker and I actually lead a worship service consisting of praying, singing, and Bible study. We also teach the Bible’s instructions on giving since we are not allowed to take up a collection.  

Handing out Bible correspondence courses to the inmates is another important part of what we do.

Are there security risks?

Norman: Some people might think that there is a personal safety risk. After the anxiety of my first trip into a prison, however, I don’t think I’ve ever had a safety concern. I suppose the biggest risk might be seeing the Good News we share with others not being accepted and followed.  

Kathy: I’ve never been afraid while in a facility.   

You serve in separate facilities but still see this as a shared ministry? How does that work?

Kathy: Currently, Norman and I are going into facilities on Sunday nights that are quite near each other, so we are able to travel together. When he returns to get me, we discuss how our classes went that night. It is always exciting to us when we have a student who wants to become a Christian. This shared ministry has brought us closer together.

Norman: Kathy and I share Bible study handouts we’ve developed and answers that we might give to a particular question that comes up in a study. We share the enjoyment of seeing lives changed as a result of the study of God’s Word.

What are your favorite stories from two decades of ministry?  

Norman: This episode happened in the parking lot outside one of our Oklahoma prisons. After a Bible class one night, a coworker and I were coming out of the prison to our car only to find an escaped inmate trying to hide underneath the car parked next to ours. 

We spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince him that it was in his best interest to walk back inside and turn himself in at Central Control. He finally agreed, and we escorted him back into the prison.  

After the initial shock, the whole situation became rather humorous. 

Kathy: I once gave an inmate a ride home on the day she was released from prison. She brought along a dog that had been hanging around the prison to be her new pet.  The administration there was going to call animal control, and she was very concerned about the animal. I couldn’t say no to that. 

We also made a stop at KFC on the way to her house because that is what the girl had been dreaming about for months. That was a great day.  

What have you learned about inmates? 

Kathy: I’ve learned that the women I have studied with are people just like I am. They often come from difficult situations and circumstances that contributed to their being in prison. I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had experienced a background like theirs. 

“I often wonder how different my life would have been if I had experienced a background like theirs.”

Many of these women realize that they need to make changes in their lives. It is surprising to me the number of women who have said that coming to prison saved their lives. Their old ways are not working, and they want to find out if God is the answer they are seeking. 

Norman: Inmates have the same sin problem that we have. They have frailties, disappointments, family issues, misplaced priorities and addictions similar to ours. I’ve learned that inmates deserve the same opportunity to hear the Good News that we have. They deserve a second chance, and their future, just like ours, is very bright as children of God. 

What would you like to communicate to our churches about prison ministry?

Norman: One, the need for us to be present in every jail or prison facility is important. We can assume that people of other faiths, teaching questionable doctrines, are already there, thus making our presence urgent. 

Two, although going inside a facility to study the Bible is important, work can also be done by writing letters of encouragement, sending and grading Bible study lessons, sending birthday cards, caring for families who are affected by incarceration, etc. 

Three, any ex-offender who desires to fellowship with us should be warmly received by our churches upon their release. 

Four, God changes lives every day behind the walls and razor wire. Evidence of that is that several of our prison ministers serving inmates throughout Oklahoma are ex-offenders themselves. 

Filed under: Dialogue Dialogue prison ministry

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