Thousands of United Methodists have celebrated the value of Disciple Bible Study (DBS). They have learned more about the church, their discipleship and the human condition from Genesis to Revelation. Some graduates of Disciple I Bible Study have been inspired to go deeper. They have taken Disciple II, III, IV and continued their spiritual growth and development. Biblically speaking, Disciple Bible Study was created “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:12). Recently, Illinois Great Rivers and Northern Illinois Conferences agreed to a joint approach of “equipping the saints for the work of ministry.” We launched an initiative to conduct Disciple Bible Study in the statewide prison system. Admittedly, the church has been a bit skittish about visiting the imprisoned much less connecting with them on a consistent basis. To be sure, fear has immobilized too many of us. What might happen in face to face encounters has resulted in the response of avoidance. On the hand, the disguised look of some jails and the remote locations of some prisons have resulted in another typical human response “out of sight, out of mind.”
“Out of sight, out of mind” won’t work as sufficient rationale for the church to avoid prison ministries. Too many pastors have preached on Matthew 25:31-46 and Luke 4: 17-19 for the church to say “we didn’t know Jesus cared for the imprisoned.” In one scripture, our Lord came “to proclaim release to the captives.” In another passage on the Last Judgment, Jesus declared that “failing to visit the imprisoned was a failure to visit him.” Men, women and children locked up in prison may be “out of sight,” but rarely are they “out of mind.” Radio, television, newspapers, family and personal situations, and the rising cost of building prisons have made it so.
A little known hymn story about a famous revival hymn has a similar awareness built into its genesis. Blind Fanny Crosby, born 1820 and died 1915, wrote the hymn. During one of her routine prison visits, Fanny prepared to leave. Apparently, Crosby passed by an inmate who needed to see her as well. Before Fanny could depart, the inmate’s fervent plea stopped her dead in her tracks. “Fanny, do not pass me by.” According to Fanny Crosby, she went straight home and wrote the verses to a popular revival hymn still sung today “Pass me not O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry; while on others thou art calling, do not pass me by.” Circa 1868, that happened. Yes, an inmate, a prisoner jailed for his transgression against society inspired words and verses touching many hearts today. Even today, right now, inmates behind bars everywhere are still making that plea to anybody who will listen especially the church “while on others thou are calling, do not pass me by.”
How can United Methodists in this conference respond to this heartfelt plea?
I am calling on every church, clergy and laity, to remember one of the issues we’ll have to respond to at the Judgment. “I was in prison and you visited me.” “And when was it that saw you sick or in prison and visited you.” “What you have done to the least of these my brethren,” Christ replied, “You have done it unto me.” A bonus is bound up is such visitations. Just as John Wesley discovered a field of harvest awaiting him outside the walls of the church via field preaching, we may discover a bigger field of harvest awaits us inside prisons through Disciple Bible Study.