Ministry Behind Bars: How God Used a ‘Reluctant Prison Chaplain’ to Reach Hundreds on the Inside
Ministry Behind Bars: How God Used a ‘Reluctant Prison Chaplain’ to Reach Hundreds on the Inside

By Bill Twaddell

After trying my best to avoid him, I found myself face-to-face with a murderer. I didn’t like this guy. He had done horrible things to land himself at Western Illinois Correctional Center in Mt. Sterling, Illinois. In the casual parlance of American jurisprudence, he was a “poster child” for the insanity defense.

Many years earlier, he had committed a murder, pleaded insanity, and been found not guilty. After being set free, he committed another murder. By the spring of 2011, this man had spent most of his life behind walls and razor wire.

He had sent several request slips asking to meet with me. I, quite frankly, had been avoiding him. Then, one day, I went to the Health Care Unit; when the officer opened the door, there he was. “Chaplain, I need to talk to you,” he said. After completing my intended task, I called out his name and asked, “What’s up?” He said, “I’m dying, and I’m scared.” He wasn’t kidding. He had cancer and was in a wheelchair. I decided to speak with him in private, so I wheeled him into a nearby laundry room.

Is the Gospel for Everyone?

I must confess, I was a reluctant prison chaplain. Though I had taught and baptized in prisons for almost seven years, I walked away from that conversation not at all convinced I would help the man.  I wondered why I should assist this guy with eternal life when he had shown absolute disregard for the lives of his victims. I often wonder about things like that.

I couldn’t help but ask myself, What about the victims? Did the Lord instruct us to give special attention to convicted felons to the exclusion of those affected by the felony?And then there’s the big question: Is the gospel for everyone?

As I began to think and pray about it, the Lord brought to mind several Scriptures that led me to a decision. Among them, “The Lord is . . . not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). But the key passage for me was Jesus’ story of the landowner who paid the same wage to all the men he hired throughout the course of the day (Matthew 20:1-16). When the men who had worked all day complained that men who had worked only one hour received the same wage, the landowner said, “Take your pay and go. I want to give to one who was hired last the same as I gave you” (v. 14). I interpreted those words as, “It’s none of your business who I want to save.” I basically responded, “Yes, Sir—message received,” and I haven’t looked back since.

Prison administration helped with the arrangements. One March day, the prisoner was wheeled to the chapel, where he was lifted into the baptistery by two men guilty of the same crime as he. The two-time killer was baptized and returned to the Health Care Unit. He died a month later. Was he sincere? I’ve often wondered. Fortunately, that’s not my jurisdiction.

Demonstrating Faithfulness on the ‘Inside’

Looking back now, I see a larger picture was developing. This man I just described was the 99th prisoner I baptized. It took seven years to reach the 100th. After that, we averaged 101 baptisms per year at that prison alone. As of this writing, there have been 917 baptisms—more than 800 in the eight or so years since the baptism of this prisoner in the wheelchair.

“It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:12). This is the whole issue in prison ministry. My role is not to judge sincerity, but to be faithful. Prisoners have often lost the faith of their family, friends, and society, and so prison volunteers must demonstrate faithfulness individually and collectively.

I was fortunate to have reliable, faithful volunteers during my career as a chaplain in the Illinois Department of Corrections. I served with a volunteer to Spanish-speaking prisoners who drives two hours from Peoria every Saturday. He has done this faithfully since 2001. On his return trip, he stops at the prison in Canton, Illinois, to teach a Bible study.

A favorite memory is when I called a brother from the noninstrumental churches of Christ and told him the moratorium on the Lord’s Supper and baptisms he had operated under for years had ended. He wept in my office at the good news. We labored together for more than 10 years. He went to be with the Lord in early 2015; his passing left a hole in my Sunday-morning and Monday-evening programs.

The state of Illinois recognized the faithfulness of both these men, and they were named volunteers of the year. I have been happy to guide and work alongside other faithful stewards, as well.

Establishing Satellite Campuses on the ‘Inside’

The Crossing in Quincy, Illinois, contacted me in 2010 about establishing services at a nearby prison. The church was already using technology to establish satellite campuses. We talked, but the Illinois Department of Corrections had security concerns about such a plan. No deal. Five years later, we got together to discuss it again. This time we received approval.

The Crossing donated the necessary equipment—a projector, HDMI cable, and playback system—and worked with the prison to install it. The first service at the prison was Sunday, July 5, 2015.

The Crossing works to ensure the prisoners feel like they are part of the church. Each Sunday the speaker welcomes those joining from “the inside.” That simple strategy alone has worked wonders with the prisoners.

In September 2015, we expanded to four services, one for each housing unit. Volunteers arrive at 7 a.m. each Sunday and stay until 2:30 p.m. “The inside” baptisms are announced monthly at The Crossing via a baptism video. People cheer when that total number of baptisms is posted. Last June 30, as we were marking four years, there had been 444 baptisms during that time.

Additionally, five Bible studies are conducted weekly at the prison, including one at a satellite work camp. Thanks to the cutting-edge thinking of an assistant warden, we established the only Bible study (that we are aware of) in a segregation unit in the state of Illinois. Inmates have four weekly opportunities to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

Other state facilities in Illinois heard about what was going on and were eager to join in. Sadly, the demand was greater than our ability to meet it. Eventually services were added at the jail in Pike County, Illinois—for women on Sunday night and men on Wednesday night. They use different technology—Apple TV—to view services.

Last March we began Monday evening services at the women’s prison in Vandalia, Missouri. That facility uses yet another form of technology—one put together by a volunteer from The Crossing’s campus in Hannibal, Missouri. We started a Bible study in the Jacksonville, Illinois, prison in September 2019. Baptisms were scheduled to begin in November.

 The same technology being used in prisons and jails is also being used to reach people in four transitional centers. We are also talking with a renowned drug treatment facility with connections to the Illinois prison system about establishing services in as many as four of their sites.

I retired as chaplain from the Illinois Department of Corrections in October 2018. The Crossing asked me to come on staff part-time to continue the work we had begun together. I am glad for that opportunity. It is a privilege to continue reaching those in prisons and jails whose spiritual bondage has led to their physical bondage. Together, we are remaining faithful to the calling and the opportunity the Lord has set before us.

Bill Twaddell is retired from the Illinois Department of Corrections as an officer, tactical officer, hostage negotiator, and chaplain with more than 25 years of experience. He is still involved in law enforcement and is the part-time director of The Crossing—Inside, a prison/jail outreach ministry of The Crossing, a multisite church located in three states across the Midwest.

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