The Virginia Saints are a men’s softball team that played six games this summer. But the team is not a member of a traditional church softball league. This group of men from Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Glen Allen, Va., goes inside the walls of prisons to engage inmates in athletics.
“Softball gets us in the door,” admits Tom Hayden, one of its founding members, “but we share more than the love of the sport. We are also there to share Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation.”
In its eighth season the Virginia Saints have worked with over 6,000 men and seen over 1,000 professions of faith. It’s a fantastic opportunity for evangelism, says Hayden, and a missions ministry of Mount Vernon Baptist Church.
The Virginia Saints is a branch of The Saints Prison Ministry, headquartered in Moorestown, N. J. It was founded in 1987 with the mission of presenting the gospel to prisoners through athletics and to mentor them toward spiritual maturity and a successful transition into family and community.
Today with branch offices in North Carolina, Georgia and Colorado, The Saints Prison Ministry operates six softball teams, two soccer teams, a basketball team and a women’s volleyball team. Since 1987 the Saints have played more than 2,500 games in 350 different prisons in 26 states and Canada. According to its website, over 23,000 prisoners have made professions of faith in Jesus Christ.
Statistics show that the vast majority of prisoners will not likely attend a traditional religious program such as a chapel service or Bible study. However inmates will gladly attend sporting events where the gospel is shared.
This summer the Virginia Saints have brought softball games to the Lawrenceville (Va.) Correctional Center, Coffeewood Correctional Center in Mitch-ells, Va., Halifax (Va.) Correctional Unit #23, Baskerville (Va.) Correctional Center and Caroline (Va.) Correctional Unit. A July game at the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Va., was postponed due to weather.
Hayden does most of the scheduling for the games. He says most correctional facilities have softball teams as part of their recreational program. The Saints are allowed to play against an all-star or championship team there. Most visits begin with a seven-inning ball game, and then the team brings out its portable sound system and interacts with the men, sharing the plan of salvation through testimonies. Afterward the team plays another softball game before leaving.
Jim Korth is branch coordinator for the Carolina Saints, a team with players from Asheville and Charlotte and in Myrtle Beach, S.C. While the team is allowed to engage inmates at the Butner Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, N.C., it plays most of its games at correctional facilities in South Carolina, due to security regulations of the North Carolina Department of Corrections.
“I was a member of the first team formed 25 years ago in New Jersey,” says Korth. He feels the ministry meets not only spiritual but social and recreational needs of inmates. “These people need contact with good people on the outside,” he says. “But our primary concern is spiritual needs.”
According to Hayden, in-mates are given response cards where they can indicate if they have made a decision to commit their lives to Christ. The Saints Prison Ministry operates a free Bible correspondence school for inmates, ex-offenders and their families. When inmates complete a response card a package of information is sent to them, including the opportunity to enroll in this program.
Due to the influx of prisoners at each institution, a chaplain cannot be everywhere there is a need. Discipleship teams of Jericho Ministries, an affiliate of The Saints Prison Ministry, provide regular, face-to-face mentoring for inmates.
Many of the men and women behind bars are lonely and long to correspond with someone on the outside, Hayden adds. A pen pal ministry serves as a safe outlet for volunteers to correspond with inmates. The Saints Prison Ministry also has a prayer warriors program and a ministry that sends a hand-written birthday card to each of the 25,000 inmates currently on its mailing list.
Hayden points out that there are many people who are not able to go to prisons and play softball and sending cards or corresponding and praying for inmates allows them to be involved.
On Sept. 20-23 the Virginia Saints will visit four prisons and minister to five different groups in a weekend crusade beginning with the Denmar Correctional Center in Hillsboro, W. Va., and ending with the Bland (Va.) Correctional Center. They will also have the opportunity to talk with inmates at the Denmar Women’s Center, a facility for women who are pregnant while incarcerated.
“Once the Saints can get in the door at a correctional facility, they appreciate our ministry and are eager for us to return,” says Hayden. “Most of the men and women we encounter behind bars have hurting hearts and are desperate to experience Christ’s love and forgiveness.”
And sports can provide the opportunity for the Saints to open inmates hearts and lead them to life-changing decisions.
Barbara Francis (bfrancis@ religiousherald.org) is on the staff of the Religious Herald.