Prison Ministry, by Lennie Spitale

In my work as a state prison chaplain I sometimes receive phone calls from zealous, well-meaning Christians who want to come "preach to the prisoners." My usual response is to smile benignly at their naïveté and attempt to arrange a face-to-face meeting at the prison, where the would-be volunteers can tour the facility and perhaps attend one of the worship services over which I preside. In this way, I explain, they will be better able to understand the setting, scope and vision of the chaplaincy department's ministry.

It is against this background that I highly recommend Lennie Spitale's excellent book. Drawing on his experiences as both an ex-offender (he did a prison term for robbery and assault) and a full-time prison minister, Spitale provides an insider's view into that parallel universe known as prison. His purpose is to "help the reader understand the culture (from within the culture) so that those who hope to minister within its confines may be better equipped to operate, not only with compassion, but also with wisdom."

For many people prison is the most rewarding ministry venue imaginable. In my own experience--which includes service in urban and suburban churches, a homeless shelter, a county correctional facility and a maximum-security state prison--nothing has been as challenging or gratifying as ministry to the incarcerated. I've seen gangbangers, thugs and murderers truly repent of their sins and become stalwart Christian soldiers in the face of fierce resistance from fellow inmates and corrections officers alike. I've seen Christian inmates demonstrate compassion and love to a degree I've never witnessed in any other setting. And I've seen chaplaincy volunteers make heroic sacrifices, sometimes traveling hundreds of miles under icy road conditions, to ensure that the needs of the inmates were served.