Highlights from a Prison Alpha volunteer
by Laurie-Ann Copple, December 2008
Since November 2005 I go off on Sunday afternoons to our local prison, the Ottawa-Carleton Detention Centre to help with the Alpha course. I originally was frightened to ‘go inside’ as a prison volunteer and worked with ex-offenders instead. Just before I was to begin the ex-offender ministry, I received prayer while I attended a leadership conference in Montreal. I asked for God to remove any fear in my heart and to prepare me to minister to ex-offenders… especially since I knew I had to enter the prison to meet them before they were to be released. I spent at least half an hour gently shaking, and feeling as if God were taking fear out of my heart and replacing it with love. God filled me with so much love that when I visited OCDC to meet our ex-offenders, I not only was filled with the love of Jesus, but I felt a strong release that I was meant to be there.
After I spent an exhausting year in ex-offender ministry, I attended an ex-offender/prison ministry conference day here at St Paul’s in September 2005. It was then that I realized that I should be doing Prison Alpha instead. It was an easy switch – one that I’ve never regretted. Since then I’ve met so many kinds of people in the prison, but I’ve always felt safe.
Church Army Captain Bob Stewart led the first OCDC Alpha Course in 2001 on Saturday afternoons, and he approached Tony to join his team. Tony felt drawn to this ministry and was soon joined by other Alpha advisors and leaders; and this grew to more groups. Now there at least three Alpha courses running in the prison – Saturdays in the minimum area, Wednesdays in the Pod, and the one I’m involved with on Sunday afternoons. Some volunteers stay for years, others are there only for a few short weeks. We bring in our own musical instruments of acoustic guitar, amplifier and Irish bodhran (drum). We usually have a team of three – four volunteers and in the maximum-security area and we are allowed up to six inmates. Since I joined the Sunday team, we have worked with three different cellblocks and have met some men who are truly searching for meaning. Some inmates have been back-slidden Christians who return to faith after they are weaned off their drug habits, others are seemingly normal until they’ve made a horrible mistake. Many of them reach out to us in thankfulness that we want to spend time with them.
took me aside and told me he was concerned about me going on my mission to Pakistan. He said that he wanted me to return safely and that he would be praying. Imagine that, dear André, in the middle of an intense Christian experience, was thinking of ME?
Some inmates have been released and have gone on with their lives in positive ways. We’ve been in touch with a few of them – including Jason, who Tony has discipled for a few years now. Then there is Christian, who was baptized last year. He’s back in the prison now, but what he encountered with us was so special that he knew that we would welcome him back, even though we were disappointed that he ‘fell.’ He wants to change, and that’s a crucial step. There’s James, a very dear Christian, who has such a deep faith and prayer life that he’s an inspiration to us. We also enjoy the company of Denis, who was seemingly a happy go lucky man who joked about everything, until we saw him soften and become real.
Do they want us there? You bet they do. Two years ago, Tony and I continued to visit our Alpha inmates over Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. We were able to get permission from the chaplain to bring in pieces of Joan Andrew’s fruitcake into our meeting room. We had just enough pieces for each inmate, ourselves and a few of the guards. The inmates loved the attention, and the cake. One of them jokingly said “that was good, but where is the file?” Many weeks we have amazing stories. We’ve had our hearts broken, but we’ve also received much joy in working with these men. Jesus tells us in Matthew 25: 31 – 46 about ministering to the “least of these” as outreach to Jesus himself. Verse 36 mentions, “I was in prison and you visited me.” Sometimes our Alpha sessions are as much church to me as Sunday mornings. So when you see me leaving quickly after coffee, you’ll know where I’m going… I’ve got a date with Jesus… and our friends in OCDC.
If you’d like to join us in future as a volunteer, please let me know and we can start the process of your screening. You won’t regret it. Meanwhile, please keep us in your prayers as well as specifically praying for Denis, Christian and James.
Yours in Christ
Local prison ministry