Middle East Resources

A Different Kind of Prison Ministry

Shirley W. Madany

In missionary circles most people are familiar with the term, tentmaker. It’s the current lingo for someone who is pursuing two jobs, one of them evangelistic. Around the world there are many committed Christians who are endeavoring to bring the Gospel to the people nearest them. In the 1980s we became aware of a much unstructured, spontaneous example of this in a most unlikely spot. Christians, facing long prison sentences, some of them having discovered Christ after their incarceration, were responding to a call to bring the Gospel to fellow inmates, and in some cases to a particular group, namely those who had been attracted to the religion of Islam.

Alan Keyes, who once hosted a Christian talk show on MSNBC, interviewed Chuck Colson on the subject of his prison ministries. They discussed the end-result of certain conversions to Islam which are occurring in our prisons.

Christians usually think of prison ministries as bringing inmates to Christ. Heading such a ministry has been Colson’s life work following his own experiences while serving time in prison. There have been splendid results. Across the country there are many groups of church members who grade Bible studies and answer letters and questions from such inmates. But 15 years ago, in the midst of our radio ministry to the Arabic-speaking world, we became aware of a different kind of prison ministry which was directed to the Muslim population in our jails and penitentiaries. In a monthly newsletter to our supporters I reported the following:

“One hundred copies of THE BIBLE AND ISLAM were requested by Good News Jail and Prison Ministries in Arlington, VA, to be placed in the hands of each of their Chaplains as a ministry tool. This will give the book a tremendous coverage and we anticipate an ever-increasing demand…. One hundred and twenty-five copies of THE BIBLE AND ISLAM have already been sent to just one jail where there are 100 men attending a weekly Bible study meeting. The Chaplain reports that he has seen the number of men attending the Islamic Friday prayer meeting drop from 60 to 35 and the Christian group increase correspondingly. He is extremely enthusiastic regarding the contents of our one English language book. How we praise God for this response; thirty-five copies of THE BIBLE AND ISLAM were sent to a local prison ministry group, and contact has been made with regard to supplying our book to the larger penitentiaries where it is reported there is a rapid rate of conversion to Islam! ‘…I am specifically requesting 100 copies of your book. Many of the inmates have requested it as a witnessing tool. I received 200 of them from your ministry about 5 years ago but have been out of them for some time. There is a great demand for them at this institution’”

That was in 1988. All too soon this freedom was curtailed. Muslim imams were assigned to look after the Muslim prison population. Chaplains found that they had to censor themselves. One Chaplain, our biggest customer, said that it was no longer possible for him to have a copy of our book sitting on his desk. It was turning into a “forbidden” book.

I am looking in my “prison ministry” file and noticing how many letters we received. Most of them came as a result of a small classified advertisement that we ran in Christianity Today for a number of years. They would get hold of old issues and write, hoping that we were still able to answer their request.

“God has placed a compassionate love in my heart for these men who seem so filled with religious fervor and hate. I have taken the time to learn of their ways by reading the English translation of the Qur’an. Right now I really only know how to smile and show them the love of Christ. I refuse to argue scripture with them but I would love to be able to give a good, positive, Scriptural witness from a perspective they would understand.”

This man is off to a very good start. He has the right idea when he says that he does not want to argue. We are glad to send him our one small book, THE BIBLE AND ISLAM. What amazes us, and shames us for being amazed, is the depth of spiritual understanding which some of the men reveal.

I like to thank you for sending me such important and interesting material. This is just what I needed to learn more about the Islamic world and its language. Besides, I always had and still have the desire of becoming a living witness of the gospel of my Lord Jesus, especially to the Muslims, because I lived among them for a long time. I remember how they always tried to convince me that their doctrine was the only way of salvation. I also remember that something in the back of my mind, perhaps the spirit of God, used to tell me that they were wrong. Now I want to go to them and tell them about Jesus, his death and resurrection, but in a most sincere and proper way.

From another location one learns how roommates influence each other:

Praise God, isn’t He wonderful? My roommate is Lebanese and you just sent him THE BIBLE AND ISLAM. He and I would like to thank you for it. He is teaching me Arabic and I am sending this order for Arabic books for a friend in Morocco who is coming to Jesus!

Another letter came to us because our book had been recommended to the writer by a friend incarcerated at another prison in the same state. Evidently they are moved about and thus good news gets spread and shared: Being in prison, I feel that this book will be an asset for my witness to the Muslim population.

One man, writing from California, describes in some detail his concern over what he hears from the members of the Nation of Islam (Black Muslim group) who are very vocal where he is. They get plenty of free literature and cassette tapes, many of them featuring the thoughts of the notorious Louis Farrakhan—material, which feeds anger, and distorts thinking. One chaplain may have to sort out all the needs of the large number of religious groups in his care, such as Protestants, Catholics, and Muslims, to name just a few. In some jails, however, the Muslims may have their own spiritual overseer and then groups become polarized. There has been a spate of letters recently and it is our pleasure to be able to supply these requests freely, both for the men and for the chaplains. It has been gratifying to see the increased attention being given to prisoners and to their families in the last few years and we are becoming aware that there are many conversions taking place in our jails. The following letter tells of someone who has become a Christian:

I read your book on how to witness to a Muslim and really enjoyed it. I myself used to be a Muslim, but now know that Jesus Christ is Lord. I thank God that He has allowed me to see the revelation of Jesus. Although it took coming to prison and a thirty-five-year sentence to bring me to the end of myself, I am more than grateful. If it is possible, would you please send more information about ministering to Muslims? Here there are so many black professing Muslims who mainly seem to just want to have something to identify with. I would be very grateful if you could help me in this matter. I love you. Sincerely________

Arabic-speaking immigrants also end up in jail and one of them ordered our daily devotions book in Arabic and then decided to mail it to Lebanon to his family. He wrote to ask if we could send another one to a relative in California.

Probably the most moving letter is one that came from someone on death row who has evidently made his own peace with God. He talks about the scarcity of Christians and the rising number of Muslims he sees around him and he analyses it as a lot of men who are bitter, angry at God and angry at ‘the system.’ So instead of facing their problems and admitting their own shortcomings, needs, failures and sins, they turn away from the true God and look for other things. And according to this man they find in Islam something which will allow them to hold onto their anger and bitterness.

He bemoans the fact that they are so aggressive in spreading their faith and talking about it. Much more willing to do so than the Christians around him. He wonders if it is the same in the “outside world.” He talks about the Nation of Islam as well and wants more information so that he can understand these people. He expresses himself beautifully:

I am concerned because all of us here face death. It is hard sometimes, but I am reminded that Christ died for even these bitter and angry souls. I feel I must try to reach these people, and I need some help. I hope to hear from you. Please pray for me and pray for the men here. Thank you and God bless you. (This person was on death row and eventually lost all his appeals and was executed.) The Muslim world is all around us these days, even in our correctional institutions. It has been good to be able to provide our small publication. The Lord has allowed us to help people understand and deal with situations which at first they find baffling. Most books on “how to” with regard to missions to Muslims are designed primarily for Christians who have the freedom to attend church, visit their neighbors, travel freely to other countries and attach themselves to various organizations. These tentmakers in our prisons are a lonely, injured group of men who don’t even recognize that there is something very special about the love, which God has now placed in their hearts. They are men who under the guidance and leadership of believing chaplains and through personal Bible study, are receiving the call from the Lord and making the effort to bring the Gospel to their “neighbor” in prison.

If you want to check out THE BIBLE AND ISLAM, yourself, please look at www.levant.info where you will find it available for downloading.