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Christian Beliefs Christian Church El Paso Year of Faith

Gallery+Story: Religion, Redemption and Purpose – Ministry Behind Bars

“When I’m out here, outside in the free world and I have a bad day,” says Greg Swann, pastor of Del Sol Sanchez. “And you know, pastors have bad days, just like everybody has a bad day, okay? And when I have a bad day – I go to the prison because that’s my happy place.”

“When I’m out here, outside in the free world and I have a bad day,” says Greg Swann, pastor of Del Sol Sanchez. “And you know, pastors have bad days, just like everybody has a bad day, okay? And when I have a bad day – I go to the prison because that’s my happy place.”

When I think of my happy place, the first fifty things that come to mind are defiantly not a prison, or prison environment. My happy place is somewhere I can sit, think and contemplate.

Somewhere that is quite and not as foreboding as a prison rec yard where anyone may have a shank and a ‘green light’ on you. [Authors note: ‘green light’ is a prison term for when there is a hit out on you, and anyone can take you out].

Prison is not my happy place.

In the United States, there are roughly 2,298,300 people locked up in prisons, jails and detention centers. We are number one in incarceration rates – almost 655 inmates per 100 thousand people.

Personally, and this is just me talking, I really feel that we can find more constructive ways to reduce the prison population. That, however, is for a whole other article.

This article is about faith in prison. This is about why someone, anyone would venture into those imposing gates, past fences and rolls of razor wire, to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To that end, a friend of mine, Monte Slaman, connected me with Greg Swann at Del Sol Church.

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“Del Sol is six campuses,” said Pastor Greg Swann. “We’re one church in six different campuses, or six different locations, of different ethnicities and different age groups, different, just a number of different people.”

One of those campuses is found at Sanchez State Prison.

“We do it exactly like we do church on the outside, we do it on the inside. We have a full praise and worship team that goes in along with a prayer team that we develop prayer warriors in the prison,” explains Pastor Swann. “So, we have actual, ministries that are working in the prison itself. We go in at 6:00 PM on Sundays and we have service between six and 8:00 PM.”

There are more than a few people who say that going into the prisons and preaching the Word of God to those who are incarcerated is pointless.

“It’s something they use,” said a federal prison guard who asked I not use his name. “They go there to hide out, to religious services. When I worked FCI Tucson, the pre-trial guys would use that in court. They would say they found religion and think it would get them some little reduction in their sentence.”

So, why do people go in? Why do that preach the Word of God to the incarcerated?

“Well, the obvious is, of course, Lord tells us in his word, you know, I look at Matthew 25:36, I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you took care of me. I was in prison, and you visited me. And so, I look at verses like that, and I see where God’s given us direction of things and people, we need to take care of and things that are part of responsibility of people growing even when they’re in the prison system,” said Swann.

“All right. Now a lot of people in which the the actual inmates themselves feel like they have been tossed away by society. They feel very low and with very low self-esteem. And so, one of my major goals is when I go in there, just like it would be on the outside, is to help people understand the great value that God has for each one of us, no matter where we’re at in our lives. So, I, that’s one of the main things for me, the reason why we go out there is to help them understand that they’re important. Just like anybody else.”

What he said, near the end there, about making those inmates feel important is what a lot of those guys are missing in their life, one of the things that has led to them being imprisoned in the first place.

Many were ignored, pushed aside, or treated as if they were less than human. Many of them fall into the cycle of prison, finding that feeling of importance that has been missing in their lives.

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David R. [Authors note: He has asked that I not use his real name so as not to embarrass his family], someone I’ve known for many years. David spent most of his teen and adult life in and out of youth facilities and prisons. He recently celebrated his 73rd birthday and his seventh year out of prison.

“Stupid,” is what David said. “Stupid that for me I make something that was chaos into something normal. In that place, I was able to become someone. I was important. It was my life and world.”

For David found success in prison. He found acceptance in prison. He found a world that he could make his own.

“I would get out and from that first day would find ways to get back in away from the federal halfway houses,” said David. “I had that life everyone has. I had a job; I had my business, my inmate store, I had a position in that structure of gang life.”

What helped David break that cycle was finally connecting with one of the outside ministries that would visit USP Florence, in Florence, Colorado, each week.

“I got assigned to work as an orderly in the chapel,” says David. “Working there I could see the ones, the guys who were hiding out, but I could also see the ones who found little rays of hope. Those guys, those other inmates, would go home to the free world and I hardly ever seen them come back. I wanted that.”

In David’s case, he connected with a religious group that would come in. The services they offered were like those he attends now. He began to feel important to someone. Or, as he put it, he began to feel like he was more than a number.

Del Sol Sanchez does that same thing. They connect with the inmates just as they would anyone the encountered on the outside.

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“We try to retain the DNA of all Del Sol Churches,” said Pastor Swann of Del Sol Sanchez.

“So that’s one of the ways we see it. We continue to work together and move spiritually in one direction as six different campuses. So, we do that exact same in the prison where we’re allowed to. We we go in, we set up, we do sound checks, our praise and worship group who’s led by John Wheeler…and he sets up all the music for us. We worked together. I let him know what kind of sermons I’m preaching at that time, what series I’m in. He brings the songs that would enhance the message… through the praise and worship. And they practice to get ready. They get set up for it.”

Pastor Swann adds, “We were allowed to bring in a setup team, which is about eight guys from one of the faith-based dorms in the prison. And so they come in, they set up the chairs, we put, we’re allowed to have 87 chairs in there according to the fire rules. And so, we set up the chairs. The band sets up while we have the setup crew getting ready. They pulled prayer cards together. They put first-time guest cards, cause we have a lot of first-time guests that come in there, at least eight every week comes in a first time guest.”

The inmate members of Del Sol Church work and function just as they would if they were attending one of the other Del Sol campuses throughout El Paso. They worship with each other, they invite others to attend services, they study together, they even have an inmate who preaches a couple of times a month.

Yet, the connection, the feeling of being someone, of being important to someone doesn’t stop there with the end of a prison term. No, Del Sol continues to help once they are released back into society.

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“I would honestly say I think that the impact that a relationship, a true relationship with Jesus Christ has a tremendous impact, a lasting impact,” said Pastor Swann. “As long as we help connect them. Once they get back out and see that’s something we’re doing as well too.  I don’t know if you know that.”

There are many ministries that go in and visit with inmates, conduct Bible studies, share the Gospel, but so few who have the vision that Swann was blessed with, a vision that goes beyond the prison gates.

“We are establishing support groups that are faith-based at four corners of the county,” he said. “So, when they get out in El Paso, they’re directed to our churches or they, if they don’t want to go to our church, we ask them to go to a community church. So, if they get connected in a church community, it will help continue on the culture that we tried to create out there: Christian depend on God and not your type of community where they can continue on and being encouraged to get through the things that they got.”

*****

Life after prison is not easy. Some will have restitution to pay. Others may have court-ordered drug or alcohol treatment that will either begin or continue after release. They need to find housing and a job in a society that would rather continue to punish them rather than give them a second chance.

Del Sol continues to assist with support centers that are staffed by offenders who not only know what these men are facing upon release but have already navigated that bumpy road and found success.

To many, the prison ministry – including Pastor Swann – is to love and share that love.

“God tells me, He tells me and, you know, to love the Lord, and the greatest commandment says to love the Lord in Matthew 20. Matthew 22 verses 37 through 39, He says, to love your Lord with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, that’s the first and greatest commandment,” said Swann, as our conversation was winding down.

“The second is to love your neighbor as yourself. And so, I like to live that way. I want to love the Lord, and I’m going to love my neighbor. So, for me, my neighbor is in prison. I look at Hebrews 13 verse one through three. It says, keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to Angel’s knowing, not without knowing it. Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, as if you were together with them in prison, and those who were mistreated as if you are yourselves were suffering.”

“I look at it as I could have been in prison with them. I could have very easily made gone down the wrong path because I was a, a young kid that thought he knew everything and everything until one life. God didn’t choose that pathway for me. But I sure can help people who are going down that pathway because they deserve to know that God loves them. And that’s what I wanted to do is help people to understand that they have a king of kings and Lord of Lords who loves them more than anything they deserve or can even fathom. And
so, my calling is with the men in prison, and I know it,” Swann added.

******

So why minister in prison? What preach the Gospel to those who are captive? Because God has told us to, has commanded us to. Having personally worked with people, both in and outside of a correctional setting, I can attest that the Word of God does have a power to change hearts and minds.

It has the power, the capacity to take people like David R. and turn his life around.

It has the strength needed to give Greg Swann and everyone from Del Sol, and churches across the world, the desire, the passion to go and preach on the inside.

For more about Del Sol and what they are doing in El Paso, visit them online.

****EDITOR’S NOTE” At the request of the prison, all photos have been removed.

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