Reconciling Incarcerated Parents With Their Children

Lifeline Global Ministries restores families of incarcerated fathers and mothers through curriculum and a one-day Returning Hearts event.

Lifeline Global Ministries (formerly Awana Lifeline) is a ministry that develops curriculum for incarcerated fathers and mothers, aimed at reconciling them with Christ and helping them become the parents God created them to be. Through their Malachi Dads (for incarcerated fathers) and Hannah’s Gift (for incarcerated mothers) programs, Lifeline has partnered with ministries like World Impact, Prison Fellowship, Global Prison Seminaries Foundation and local churches to reach prisoners in 250 prisons and jails in 30 states and nine countries.

We talked with Romney Ruder, president of Lifeline, about their impact on inmates and their families, their Returning Hearts event that reunites incarcerated parents with their kids for a day of reconciliation and fun, and the essential role of the local church in sustaining prison ministry.

Awana is typically associated with kids, how did Awana Lifeline prison ministry come about?

Burl Cain who used to be the warden down in Angola prison had reached a point where he felt that while they were seeing great transformation in the inmates, there really was no opportunity for them to reengage their families. There was still a lot of brokenness.

So he got to know Art Rorheim who is the founder of Awana, and made him aware of the need. Art said Awana would take care of it. That’s how Lifeline was born, and the basis was the dual purpose of teaching prisoners how to build reconciliation skills based on a biblical model, and then teaching both men and women to be godly parents.

We as an organization see the epidemic of incarceration as a generational sin issue. If you take a look at underserved/underesourced communities around the country, typically there’s a general feeling and acceptance that incarceration is just the way to go.

Certainly, as a society, we’ve tried to address that with community involvement and government—changing our laws and trying to come up with economic answers. But on the face of it, it’s a sin issue that’s passed down from generation to generation.

Ultimately, the lasting effect of our work is on the upcoming generations, who are seeing mom and dad have a change in who they are because of their relationship with Christ, and are choosing not to follow the same path to incarceration. They’re recognizing, Hey, we have a Savior who was sent for me, and [incarceration] is not a lifestyle path that I have to go down.

So let’s pivot to the Malachi Dads and Hanna’s Gift curriculum. Do I understand right that inmates wrote the curriculum?

The inmates have been a part of some of the curriculum. On Malachi Dads Gene Getz, who wrote a book called The Measure of a Man, was very instrumental in reframing that book to be part of our curriculum. Christie Miller, who is COO of the Global Prison Seminaries Foundation and is a member of our board, is the author of quite a bit of the Hannah’s Gift curriculum. Those are the biggest influences, but we do have some curriculum that was written by inmates as well.

How long is each course?

It depends on the prison institution, but generally, each book is broken into a 12-week course (and there are four books for men, three for women in the program). So typically, each institution can get through all the books in a year doing a once-a-week facilitation.

It’s important to understand that our ministry is purposely designed to engage the local church. So there are three components, and you mentioned two of them. There’s Malachi Dads and Hannah’s Gift. And then we also have a one-day event called Returning Hearts. It’s a festival that allows inmates to reengage with their children. That coincides with a guardian event, during which we take the guardians of the children—grandparents, aunts and uncles, spouses—to a different portion of the facility and love on them.

At Angola, where we have the longest history, we run that event once a year ourselves. And then we teach Malachi Dads and Hannah’s Gift in the Los Angeles county jail system in California—which I believe is the largest county jail system in the world with over 22,000 inmates.

We facilitate those, 1) so that we’re staying ahead of the curve and recognizing what changes are going on within facilities, and 2) we treat them as static displays. At every other facility in every other state we’re involved with, we rely on the local church to facilitate our curriculum and programs. We run our showcase events so that if somebody has a question, How do we put on a one-day Returning Hearts? we can invite them and say, Come to this event and we can showcase this for you.

We have program partners around the world that are really the conduit from the local church, bringing the programing into these institutions.

And the reason that’s important is scripturally Christ made the call to visit prisoners. As Christians we’re called to that kind of ministry. When you take a look at men and women who are incarcerated, when they have the opportunity to be released and are met at gate and engaged with a local church, the recidivism numbers drop substantially because they have a network of support. They found Christ in prison, and now they’ve found a local church community.

The most crucial component of why we engage the local church is children and families of those who are incarcerated need a place that can feed into them, and they need to find community and safety and somebody who is echoing the points of transformation that the incarcerated father or mother is trying to communicate. That only comes from the local church.

In order for this movement to be sustainable, the local church is the key.

You mentioned the Returning Hearts Celebration. What impact has it had on prisoners and their families?

We have men who have been released from Angola who were some of the original Malachi Dads, and are now not only engaged citizens, but continue to return to Angola year after year to provided representation.

One of our current board members, Harold Greer—who was one of the original Malachi Dads—was released from Angola after serving time. What’s interesting was his first position was working with reentry services—working with the judge who sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment.

He’s been out for three and a half years and last spring he closed on his first home, and has since gotten married. We asked him to be on the board of directors for Lifeline this past January.

When men and women discover that there’s a Savior, and the truth that who they are doesn’t have to be who they will be, it’s a miracle.

When I was in L.A. county prison for the first time, I saw an African American gang leader hand-in-hand with a man tattooed from head to toe with hate tattoos because he was part of the Aryan Nation, and they were praising Jesus together.

Then I was at a graduation of 150 men and the sheriff comes in and they’re cheering him like they’re at a rock concert. And I’m going, In what other institution in the world are the inmates celebrating the man who essentially put them there?

There was a guy there from MS-13. He said, “Man, all my life all I wanted to be was a made man in the Mexican mafia. And it took being in prison for me to find freedom.”

Then, this last spring, we were at a Hannah’s Gift graduation at Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women (LCIW), and there was a woman there who wanted to give her testimony. She was in year eight of a 35-year sentence.

“It didn’t take getting into Hannah’s Gift for me to recognize that I wasn’t a good mom. Between substance abuse and the lifestyle choices I made, I just wasn’t there. My girls kind of had to go it alone. But through Hannah’s Gift; I’ve been able to rebuild relationships with my girls who are now grown women. Because my daughters are grown, I cannot necessarily be that influence like I want to be, [but] I’m getting to know my granddaughter and I’m able to have that kind of relationship with her,” she said.

Then she started breaking down in tears.

She said, “It wasn’t long ago that my daughter visited, and she said, ‘You know Mom, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, but I hope you understand I never want to be the type of mom you were to me. But I want you to know that I’m striving every day to be the type of woman that you are today.’”

There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. It was just amazing. And you see those types of stories all over the country.

What are some ways churches can get involved?

For each church the calling is going to be different. We try to provide multiple opportunities for churches to get engaged.

Some churches are going to feel, We want to be boots on ground. We’ve got a prison institution within an hour and we want to provide this type of curriculum to them. I tell people to teach one class—12 weeks, 2 hours a week. You need facilitators. If you’re going into a men’s prison, you need men’s facilitators, and if you’re going into a women’s prison, you need women’s facilitators. Let us know, and we can help get you on that path.

Some churches are going to say, We just want to give it a trial period. And what I say is, Hey listen, do a one-week mission trip and help support us at Returning Hearts in Angola. And your eyes are going to be opened wide. It takes over 500 volunteers; we pull volunteers from all over the country for this event. We’ll have almost 200 inmates and 500 kids. It’s an opportunity for people to come in and have their hearts changed.

The third way is to partner with us financially—support what we’re doing in trying to launch sites around the country. In 2020, our hope is that for $50,000 we can start 16 new satellites where we fund them 100% in year one, 80% year two, 60% year three, 40% in year four, so that after the 5th year they’re 100% self-funded. That $50,000 allows us to take care of the books for them, and so on and so forth, over that five-year process. Every year our hope is that we’ve got another 16 satellites coming on board that we’re helping to fund.

Why should local churches get involved in prison ministry?

Again, I think there’s the biblical call: Lord, when did we see you in prison? When did we visit you?

When you did it to least of these, you did it for me.

I think sometimes we have a way of trying to justify that in our minds: Well, it’s for the person who did white collar crimes. You know, it’s for the person who is really innocent … And, no. There’s an opportunity for redemption in all of us, and sin is sin. One of the things I commonly will tell groups is the only difference between myself and some of these other men is that they got caught.

The other reason the church needs to get involved is that I really feel there’s an epidemic. And too often we see it as an epidemic “over there,” away from us. Yet, if you were to poll a congregation and ask, “How many of you have been touched by incarceration, through your own experience or through a family member?” you would be amazed by how many hands go up. And I’m not talking about underresourced communities. I’m talking about in any church in America.

I think churches should get involved because it’s an opportunity to do missions. It is cross-cultural, but it’s cross-cultural in a way that you don’t need to have a passport or visa, and you don’t have to take a 15-hour flight. It’s an opportunity for discipleship, which we’re called to do in the Great Commission—to build relationships.

And the final thing I would say is that we’ve relied for too long on other answers: government answers, community answers, so on and so forth. The answer is the church. We have a responsibility. We need to recognize that and say, Hey, it’s our job.

Learn more about Lifeline Global Ministries at LifelineGlobal.org.

For more on prison ministry and the role of the local church: OutreachMagazine.com/prison-ministry