"I am incarcerated. I have no family or friends in the free world, Christian or otherwise, who visit or write me. It has been difficult for me to come back to God because I felt that just as my family and friends no longer wanted anything to do with me, that God likewise wouldn't want anything to do with me either." A prisoner named James spoke these painful words in a letter to Prison Fellowship Ministries. He is seeking a pen pal, someone to model to him the unconditional love of God. 
Families of inmates are also sentenced to a life of their own emotional, financial and moral struggles. Unfortunately, many people view the families of inmates as "guilty by association," making them innocent victims. These families must deal with endless indignities and embarrassments, or must end their relationship with the inmate entirely. The pain of isolation and damaging weight of hardships can cloud the lives of both the prisoner and his or her family with despair. But, Jesus calls us to boldly reach into their dark world with the healing, forgiving, loving light of hope.
Jesus said, "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me … I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matthew 25: 35,36,40 (NIV)) These profound words beckon each one of us to seek the face of Jesus in all people and take action to lighten their burden with the love of God.
This month make a commitment as a small group to befriend an inmate and/or an inmate's family.
First, decide on your group's commitment level. Will you reach out to an inmate, to an inmate's family, or both? Contact your local prison or jail chaplain, explain your intentions, and ask for recommendations of inmates and their families.
Next, establish the details of your commitment and create a plan of action. Your group members can write to and pray for an inmate, visit him or her at the facility (you will need to be added to the prisoner's approved visiting list), and/or help to supply some of his or her needs (ask the chaplain for a list of the prisoner's needs). If your group decides to adopt an inmate's family, consider involving the family in your small group activities such as picnics, athletic events, movies, or game nights. Provide gifts and dinner for Christmas and birthdays. Throughout the year, keep in mind the needs of the children by giving them clothes, school supplies, and shoes.
- Develop an agreement between the inmate, and/or family, and your small group. This agreement should contain clear boundaries and consequences for violating the agreement. Group members should never visit the inmate alone.
This outreach requires a long-term commitment, but witnessing God's love break through the bars of isolation, rejection, and fear will break through the bars of prejudice, judgment, and indifference in the hearts of each person in your small group.