Men of Journey
by Rob Weingartner
I used to think that missionaries were people who wore pith helmets and funny clothes, ate exotic foods and served in places with names that are hard to pronounce. And there are still some missionaries who fit that description. But now when I think of missionaries, I also think of a group of men who live at the Lois M. DeBerry Special Needs Facility; that’s a fancy name for a very plain looking Tennessee state prison just outside of Nashville.
For a number of years a group of Presbyterian men from First Presbyterian Church in Nashville went to the prison every Wednesday night, joining with a group of prisoners in Bible study, sharing and prayer. They talked about what it means to live faithfully for Jesus Christ on the inside, and on the outside, and if you asked the men you’d be hard pressed to tell which group has been more richly blessed by this relationship.
More than a decade ago, David Wood, one of the Presbyterians and a trustee of The Outreach Foundation, shared that he was going to travel to southern Africa, and the prisoners encouraged him to bring back a report about all that he did and saw. The African-American prisoners, especially, were interested in his journey. And a report was easy to share because also on the trip were a producer/cameraman and a reporter from Nashville’s CBS affiliate.
After his return, David showed the prisoners videotape from the trip, including stories about the plight of orphans and vulnerable children in Africa, kids living in the sewers of Harare, Zimbabwe and in the bush of Zambia. It remains a huge problem made worse by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. The prisoners were stunned.
Their silence was broken by an inmate who was in prison for having committed an infamous murder near Nashville. He said, “Men, WE have it better than those kids do. Seeing this, I can’t sit still. We need to do something to help them.” You see, in spite of the things that they have done in the past, Jesus has gotten hold of these men’s hearts in a beautiful way.
The prisoners, who earned 35 cents an hour working in the laundry and the mailroom and in their other jobs around the prison, started saving money. They thought they might raise $50. But they talked to other prisoners and some family members, and they raised $800! They sent the funds through The Outreach Foundation to an elder named Munjongo Namuyamba who had developed a wonderful ministry with orphans in Siavonga, Zambia.
Elder Munjongo couldn’t believe that a group of prisoners were helping to care for his orphans in Africa. He sent back by email an effusive note of thanks to the prisoners (who rarely get thanked or praised for anything).
The men were so encouraged that they sent word back to Munjongo asking what else he needed. Word came back; he needed a dormitory for girls. It would cost $12,000. When the prisoners heard that, again they were stunned into silence. It might as well have been $12 million. But again, after a while, the same prisoner stood to speak. “Men,” he said, “there is no way that we can raise $12,000. But God can do it!”
So the men set about talking to other prisoners, their friends and family. They printed up brochures and called themselves Men of Journey, because even though they are in prison they know now they are on a journey with Jesus.
And the next time I was at the Namumu Orphanage and School, I stood in the dormitory that these prisoners built! They have raised more than $14,000 for the work at Namumu, and they also raised funds for work with at-risk children right here in Nashville. It is an amazing thing how God, in his grace, has allowed these men to reach through prison bars and across an ocean to bless vulnerable children in Jesus’ name.
It was my privilege to be at the prison several years ago when Elder Munjongo visited Nashville. He wanted to see the prisoners to thank them personally. I still remember how he greeted them, “My fellow prisoners.” They embraced and wept and prayed together to the amazing God who has united their hearts and lives in such a wonderful way.
If the Men of Journey could visit with you, which would be difficult because many of them are still in prison, I know what they would say:
“Don’t sell yourselves short! Because if God can bless orphans in Africa through a bunch of prisoners in a Tennessee prison, men like us who wear the clothes that they are issued and who eat the food that they are served, who come and go when they are told, some of whom may never again know the freedom of this world – if God can do such a thing through us – just imagine what God can do through YOU!”