At the Big Sandy Regional Conference just one year ago, we had as our theme, “Doing the Impossible.” Rep. and Mrs. Van Zant asked God for what seemed “impossible”—to conduct a Journey to the Heart in the prison systems in their home state of Florida. Rep. Van Zant was appointed as Vice Chairman of the Criminal Justice Subcommittee and has 144 prisons under his jurisdiction. As they laid this desire before the Lord, God prompted them to call the IBLP Headquarters, where they were encouraged to first conduct a Basic Seminar. More than a hundred ladies completed the seminar and then proceeded to apply to attend a Journey to the Heart. This was far greater in scope than they had anticipated.
This Journey to the Heart became the pilot project for a team of thirty-four young people and parents who began to make plans to return to the women’s facility to lead a second Journey to the Heart and to conduct an additional Journey for more than one hundred enthusiastic registrants in the nearby men’s prison. This endeavor was sure to draw the attention of regional and state officials, who also were eager to see God do a mighty work of healing and redemption in the lives of the inmates.
On April 1, 2013, this hand-selected team from all across the United States and Mexico arrived at the prisons in Ocala, Florida, to conduct these Journeys. Nate Paine said: “What I saw during the week of the Journey to the Heart in Marion CI, I will NEVER forget! I have had the privilege to be a part of many ministry opportunities, but none have ever matched the power and work of the Holy Spirit coming and remaining as this has. I will truly never be the same because of it!” Attorney Bob Barth said, “There is no way to explain the impact this week has had on my life.”
Just before the graduation, Mr. Gothard met with Rep. and Mrs. Van Zant, as well as key leaders from the prisons. The prison leadership exclaimed: “We have many outside groups give programs in our prison. However, they have had difficulty holding the attention of our inmates for one hour. “So far, your group has held their attention for almost twelve hours a day, six days in a row! This is unheard of in prison work. We have never seen anything like it!” “You have had over 100 men in your group and only two dropped out, one of which was for reasons beyond his control. This is amazing!”
Word of the life-transformation of inmates was spread, and other high-level corrections officials made personal visits to see for themselves what was actually happening. They were immediately impressed with our volunteer staff and the work that God had done.
The families of the men were invited to the graduation ceremony, where Mr. Gothard was able to share a clear Gospel presentation. While many of the men had already received Christ at the Basic Seminar or before, during the week of the Journey to the Heart more than twenty-five inmates committed their lives to Jesus Christ, trusting in Him alone for salvation.
Not only were the inmates impacted, but the officers and staff were encouraged. After observing a couple days of the Journey going on, one officer grabbed the microphone and stated, “Eighty percent of you I have never had any issues with and never will. You all are seeking Christ. After this program I am going to see to it that you all are put in with the warlocks, gang bangers, and drug runners and the next Journey there are going to be 204 of you here in this program because of the impact of your lives.” One of the wardens later expressed: “I can’t tell you what a powerful impact the program had on our inmates and on our security team. Indeed, you guys are fighting the right fight!”
What is most thrilling is the door of opportunity which remains, with several wardens requesting us to return for further training and additional Journey to the Heart programs. Chaplain Bob Holyfield is planning on returning in July for another series of seminars in the prisons of Florida. One warden in particular asked if we could serve in his facilities; where he is responsible for the largest women’s prison east of the Mississippi. Of the five different units, he would like us to begin work in the youthful offenders, where 160 ladies from aged 16-24 are held with sentences ranging from life in prison to a year and a day. Statistics show that most of these ladies will return multiple times throughout their life-time and many of the expensive programs currently in place are not adequately stemming the tide of crime and recidivism.
The warden has even stated that he would see if we could take seasoned inmates who have been through our program and allow them to assist us in mentoring new inmates in other facilities. Prison officials continue to affirm, “Whatever you need to make this work happen, just let us know and we will do what we can because we believe in what is happening here!”
God has opened an incredible door of opportunity, and I believe we have just seen the first fruits of what God is ready to do!