Crosses rise over churches, orphanages, and rural medical clinics. Funds are sent to support an orphanage in war-torn Sri Lanka. A school is rebuilt after being destroyed in typhoon devastated Philippines. Wells are installed in 10 rural villages of earthquake-stricken Nepal. These are amazing results of compassionate caring and giving. But what is more amazing is that the initiators of these projects are men incarcerated in a Canadian correctional institution who never go beyond their prison yard!
Rev. William (Bud) Sargent was the pastor of the Innisfail Church of the Nazarene, which was only a few miles down the highway from Bowden Institution, a federal correctional facility in Central Alberta, Canada. The Bowden Institution is a medium institution with over 600 inmates, fulfilling sentences ranging from a couple of years to “lifers” who will die there. There is also a minimum annex to the institution where 125-130 inmates live in a group home setting, preparing them for release. Sargent became involved in prison ministry as a volunteer.
“I never really thought about ministry inside prisons and the impact chaplains might have upon offenders,” Sargent said. “But I was challenged to change my thinking and was invited by the chaplain to attend a few Sunday evening worship services at the prison to see what God was doing behind the fence.”
After that experience, Sargent said, “I was hooked! I couldn’t believe sitting in chapel with 60 to 70 inmates worshipping God from the bottom of their hearts. I saw them with tears in their eyes as they came to receive the Eucharist. They understand fully how much love and mercy has been extended to them. Those who have been forgiven much understand God’s grace.”
Sargent became a regular volunteer and led services when the chaplain was absent. Soon an opening came available for a full-time chaplain and Sargent applied. He has served five years in that position, where he says, “I am blessed every day to see God at work.”
Chaplains are not government employees but are contracted by the federal government to provide chaplaincy services inside of prisons. However, Sargent is actually employed by the Canada West District Church of the Nazarene. He serves with four other full-time chaplains: two Roman Catholics, two Protestants, one Muslim and a Wiccan/Pagan, a range intended to cover the diversity of the inmates beliefs. Also, more than 100 volunteers come inside the walls to provide a variety of ministry events.
Men who are incarcerated often tell Sargent that coming to prison was one of the best things to happen in their lives. Prior to coming to prison, they say, their lives were out of control. Incarceration has given them time to reflect on their lives and by reading the Bible and good books, and coming to know Christ as their personal savior, they find new purpose in life.
Many of these men realize they have taken so much out of society and created victims through their self-acts, and now that God has forgiven them, they have a burning desire to give back—pay it forward, if you will.
They found a way to do that after completing a study called Experiencing God: Knowing and Doing the Will of God, created by Henry and Richard Blackaby and Claude King.
One chapter of that study asked participants to consider ways in which each of them, as believers, could join God’s redemptive mission in the world. The inmates prayerfully sought a way to overcome their circumstances and make a difference in the lives of others who were suffering. They prayed, asking if a group of Christian men behind a prison fence could impact the world. That prayer has been wonderfully answered in the last three years.
One of the inmates worked for CORCAN, which stands for “Corrections Canada,” a government owned company that runs manufacturing operations within prisons to provide meaningful employment and apprenticeship opportunities to inmates. Working there, the inmate came up with the idea of constructing crosses that could be sent all over the world.
The company agreed to let the prisoners use the metal shop in the prison to build the crosses. Sargent guided them in designing the cross, Nazarene churches donated the materials and the inmates as well as staff members worked through coffee breaks and downtimes to finish the crosses. The crosses were then shipped free of charge by CANEXPRESS to Victoria to the Compassion Resource Warehouse run by Victoria Church of the Nazarene, and staff included a cross with shipments of clothing, medical and school supplies they were sending to developing countries. To date, 20 crosses have been sent to six countries in Africa, to Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines. Dell Marie Wergeland, president of the Compassionate Resource Warehouse, said in a CORCAN article, “Our ‘friends on the inside’ are blessing the world and infusing hope in many communities around the world.”
In the spring of 2013, some of the inmates asked themselves how they might raise money for those less privileged than themselves. They came up with the idea of a walk-a-thon, and with financial support from Nazarene Compassionate Ministries Canada, have successfully organized three walk-a-thons through which they raised over $20,000 to support development projects around the world. They’ve supported orphanages, rebuilt schools and partnered with Nazarene Youth International members in Nepal to dig wells for villages that don’t have access to clean water. The walk-a-thon has turned into a much anticipated event with the entire prison population looking on in the exercise yard. During the 2015 fundraiser, over 300 inmates and volunteers walked 4,162 laps equaling 1,388 miles, urged on by the cheers of clapping inmates. Games, prizes and music from the chapel band add to the excitement.
This year’s walk-a-thon will be held September 10 and money will be raised to support a Syrian refugee family relocated in Canada.
The Bowden institution has been supportive of all these projects. The staff sees that when men start making positive changes—faith, morality, integrity, forgiveness—the tension within the prison reduces.
“The staff see that although some offenders will always be ‘cons’, and there will always be those who claim to have ‘found Jesus’ in prison, there are many more who truly experience transformation,” Sargent said. “The testimony of a changed life inside a prison setting is the best example of what God does.”
Inmate *B.R. testifies that, “If we are going to be the men of God we are called to be, we can’t depend solely on the odd Sunday sermon to grow our faith. Being a man of God requires us to not only have faith but to believe that God is with us every step of the way.” He said the Experiencing God series and other Bible studies have shown him God has a purpose for his life.
He also said, “I have had the privilege of witnessing an incredible transformation in men who were broken, had no place to turn, and had lost everything.” Because of the grace of God, B.R. went on, “We are becoming better fathers, better husbands, better brothers. . . men of God. We are building a legacy of faith, and we owe our transformed lives to our Lord, Jesus Christ.”
The inmates of Bowden join in David’s cry from Psalm 18:29 “. . .with my God I can scale a wall!” Compassion, gratitude, and grace know no boundaries.