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(Lord) when did we see you … in prison, and visit you? (Matt 25:39)

Maybe it’s hard to picture a county jail as God’s vineyard.

But a team of Lead Like Jesus Facilitators in Rockford, IL, will tell you that’s exactly what it is – and that it inevitably yields a rich bounty for the Lord.

They should know. For the last nine years, they’ve been regularly facilitating Lead Like Jesus Encounters for Winnebago County Jail inmates. In all, they have led 86 Encounters that have reached more than 1500 incarcerated men.

The team uses ecumenical materials from Lead Like Jesus, but the program is supported by the Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute.

Terrific reception

“Our reception has been terrific,” says Dick Kunnert, a member of the Yeshua Institute’s Board of Directors, a Master Facilitator and leader of the team that facilitates the Encounters.

“The men come to trust us that we indeed are giving them leadership principles that they can apply in their everyday lives -- even in jail and/or prison,” he says.

“In fact, not long ago we received a letter from a man in an Illinois prison thanking us for sharing our material with a fellow prisoner, who has now shared the material with this young man and he is now a disciple. (Even though the first prisoner was impacted by the Encounter experience, he still had time to serve in a state prison.)

Inmates’ perspectives

Although the Yeshua Institute does not have the resources to do studies of the long-term affects of the Encounter on prisoners, their comments speak to the impact of the experience. Some samples:

  • “I really loved the experience and enjoyed every moment of learning how to lead like Jesus. I would like to be involved inside just as outside upon my release with the Lead Like Jesus program. Thanks so much, God bless – Love.”
  • “(The program was) absolutely refreshing and full of love! Appreciated to the utmost! God bless you all as you continue educating lost minds.”
  • “I think you should add a day or a week to program to cover all the material in depth, if possible, please!”
  • “I appreciate you guys coming and giving us better example of Leading Like Jesus, this was a very nice and educating experience and I’m thankful for it. Thank you guys a lot.”
  • “I am thankful for everything that has been taught to us during the past four days. I have found (things) that were useful and will be applied to my everyday living. Thank you for your time, we appreciate you all for coming.”
  • “I really appreciate the clarity of your program.”
  • “All the (teachers) did a GREAT job! God bless!” (This inmate also cited Luke 10:19.)
  • “You have given me encouragement to go forth in the walk with Jesus and live the life I was put here to do.”

Says Kunnert: “We have no doubt that this is the work of the Spirit, especially considering the background of many of our participants who have no formal religious training and who often did not have very positive school experiences.”

A key lesson

Among the many lessons he’s learned in nine years of leading Encounters behind bars is that many of the inmates “suffer from terrible self-images that cause them to question if anyone loves them -- especially God. Convincing them of God’s unconditional love is one of our first tasks. It becomes the foundation for their accepting the prospect of building a personal relationship with Jesus,” Kunnert says.

While Encounters are typically offered as one-day programs in other settings, in jail the programs are presented in two-hour segments across four days. As time passes, Kunnert says the inmates come to see Jesus as their life model, working with habits that keep them connected to him.

Eventually they focus on implementing the personal mission statements they develop, which speak to using their God-given gifts. “When living out their personal mission statements becomes their goal, we believe we have achieved our goal of creating disciples,” he explains.  

Always unique

“We see every Encounter as unique. There is always a surprise response from some participants, and we have learned not to predict who will get the most from the Encounter. It is an exquisite mystery in how it all works, but facilitating this material in jail is always tremendously satisfying.”

One of Kunnert’s favorite stories about the impact of the Encounter on inmates came from one of his daughters, who told him she was at a party where a man was talking about the life-changing impact of the Encounter experience while he was a prisoner in the county jail.

The fact that he was building a meaningful life on the outside gave his gratitude all the credibility it needed.

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