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JoAnne North’s devotion yields a bountiful harvest behind bars

JoAnne North is a devoted wife, a great-grandmother and a leader in Bible education for children. 

For the past three decades, she also has devoted much of her time and energy to serving those incarcerated — and has enlisted countless others in the soul-saving work of taking Christ behind bars.  
Prison ministry wasn’t something she envisioned until, in 1983, her husband — Stafford North, longtime professor at Oklahoma Christian University — handed her a copy of the Gospel Advocate with an appeal by Blake Watson. 

Insight | Bailey McBride
Watson, an inmate at the El Reno Federal Penitentiary in Oklahoma, told of about 40 men meeting as a church inside prison walls. They were seekers and had developed a series of questions about the Bible that they sent to several churches. The Cherokee Hills Church of Christ in Oklahoma City sent the only response with answers matching what they read in Scripture.
JoAnne read the report and, in her customary way, decided that Watson needed praise and encouragement. She wrote and offered to send Bibles, gospel tracts and cookies. Watson replied that they couldn’t receive cookies — and they already had Bible and tracts. What they needed was preachers. She recruited her husband and other men to preach for the congregation on Sunday afternoons. 
Watson and Blake Williams, both inmates and believers, put on JoAnne’s heart a mission to teach women in the jails and prisons around Oklahoma City. After six months — and much prayer — she was allowed to launch a Bible class at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center. She showed Jule Miller filmstrips — taking the women through the Bible and discussing salvation — on four consecutive Thursday nights. The warden asked her to continue the class. 
That’s what she did — for 15 years.
She’s also expanded her work to the Oklahoma County Jail and several minimum-security facilities. Getting into these places is difficult, requiring years of prayer and patience, she said. 
So does arranging for baptisms, but JoAnne has managed to cut through mountains of red tape. Now baptisms can take place the second Saturday of each month. 
Thanks in part to JoAnne, prison ministry has become one of the most fruitful works of her congregation, the Memorial Road Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. 
Related: ‘Be bold in the city’ — As the latest numbers show ongoing decline in Churches of Christ, urban ministry advocates urge Christians to find new ways to reach growing cities.
In 2014, 217 inmates were baptized through the ministry, which also mailed 1,853 Bibles to inmates. That same year, inmates completed nearly 49,000 correspondence Bible lessons. 
Watson himself developed many of the lessons, which focus on the role of the church as the Kingdom — an idea that was central to the thinking of the El Reno group. 
The lessons give students a chance to express interest in baptism. If they do, their names are posted to a list in Memorial Road’s prison ministry office. JoAnne and other volunteers study with the women who express this interest.
JoAnne averages two afternoons per week at the county jail, studying one-on-one with inmates. She sees them through a glass and uses a speaker to communicate with them. 
She makes sure to send notes of encouragement to her students. When one of them is baptized, she sends a special card and a note. She continues to send Christmas letters to about 80 people she has studied with. 
To her, they aren’t inmates. 
They’re sisters.

Contact [email protected].

Filed under: Insight Opinion

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