By Rev. Paul Emmel
In 1977, at the age of forty, I went to prison for the first time in my life.
I was the Protestant Chaplain at the maximum-security prison Wisconsin State Reformatory, now known as Green Bay Correctional Institution. It took me a while to adjust to the secure confinement and rules of a maximum-security institution. I had to pass through five gates and doors to reach my office in the chapel, which was formerly the prison laundry.
The chapel had traditional pews and even a colored glass window. As a Lutheran pastor, I felt right at home in my new "church." I began to see the need to develop a prison church so that the inmates I was working with could experience the support and community of other Christian inmates.
The mission of that prison church was to reach out to the prison population and let our light illuminate the dark environment in which the Lord had placed us. Together, we struggled to oppose the evil forces that surrounded us. In time, these inmates began to see new purpose despite their long sentences. In 1999, after twenty-two years of service at Green Bay and a total of twenty-nine years in corrections, I retired. For a few years subsequent, I was an instructor for Prison Fellowship at various prisons throughout the State.
Eventually, I stayed away from prison enjoying a new life of leisure activities. Figuring that I had served my time, other interests took over and prison became a distant memory. I was 78 years old.
Then in 2015, after being away from prison for sixteen years, the desire to return began to stir. I could not forget those I had left behind. Someone was calling me to visit again our nearest foreign mission. I began by corresponding with former inmates I had known—men in their fifties, locked up since the 1980's. They were glad to hear from me and pleased that I had remembered them.
Later, I met with Dr. Jim Seemann of Concordia University, St. Paul, who was beginning a new ministry called "Pastors to Prisoners," in which Lutheran parish pastors visit particular inmates once a month at Faribault Correctional Facility in Minnesota.
I signed up, and am now visiting a thirty year-old inmate who has a burning desire to live a new life for Christ as he prepares for release later this year. I am truly glad to be back in prison again. The Lord has renewed a calling within me that began forty-six years ago. It's a whole new life and only the Lord knows what lies ahead.
Pastors to Prisoners is a very special program which connects inmates in need to a pastor, and cuts down on the extensive amounts of red tape involved with going inside. Pastors meet men on the waiting list, and they can set their meeting schedules to fit with their other responsibilities. Seeing one prisoner once a month takes about an hour, or less than one percent of a minister's busy schedule.
Our church has always embraced the idea of global missions. I must say that it is a very special calling. And yet at the same time, I cannot help but think how wonderful it would be if we would be so impassioned as to embrace a special local mission, a new church, not one with brick and mortar, but one that is built in the hearts and minds of the suffering and the lost. The process has already begun in Faribault, but in time we would hope to implement this plan inside each of the ten prisons in our state.
Lutheran is the second largest denominational preference among our inmates. The number of requests for spiritual guidance, prayer, and visitation continues to grow. And yet, only 2% of the entire prison population will ever see a minister. This is a very fertile mission field. It does not require thousands of dollars of support. And it lies just next door.
The Holy Scriptures reminds us all that we have a clear-cut duty, a heavenly mandate, to reach out and to save the lost. Perhaps this is something we should consider as our prison population continues to grow.
For more information about how this program works, please feel free to contact the Minnesota South District Prison Ministry Coordinator, Dr. Jim Seemann at email@example.com.