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My Christian life: Pen pal shares faith with prisoners

God’s grace brings forgiveness, hope, and love across prison walls.

“Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison” (Hebrews 13:3).

Growing up, perhaps you had a pen pal—a friend from summer camp or a cousin who lived across the country. But have you ever considered corresponding with a prisoner? WELS Prison Ministry gives you an opportunity to experience unique blessings through its pen pal ministry, just one part of its multifaceted program.

Barbara Welch MCL
Barbara Welch

In June 2021, 91-year-old WELS member Barbara Welch wrote a letter to Forward in Christ: “I am writing to you to share another prisoner story. I have been a pen pal to many for many years. I want to share with you another case of how God works through this ministry.” Barbara went on to share this inmate’s story and his last letter to her, written from his hospital bed. Even though the letter has a sad ending by earthly standards, Barbara called it “another success story by the Holy Spirit.”

Barbara, a pastor’s wife and mother of eight—not to mention mother to 30 to 40 foster children, church secretary, and school bus driver—began writing to inmates and correcting Bible study tests through WELS’ Prison Ministry program in 1993. She heard this ministry was looking for pen pals, and she liked people and writing. “I enjoyed it so much that I just kept doing it!” she says. At one point, Barbara wrote weekly to 20 inmates and included them in her prayers!

Barbara’s pen pal letters are full of inmates struggling with anger, shame, sorrow, and complaints, but they are also stories of God’s mercy. The letters reveal God gradually, moving inmates to request Bibles. The notes are filled with words of witness and encouragement, talk of prayer, and stories of inmates sharing their faith with others.

“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” (Matthew 25:36).

Barbara and Roland Welch
Barbara and her husband, Pastor Roland Welch, around the time Barbara started writing to inmates. Almost 30 years later, Barbara (pictured above) still serves as a pen pal.

In the late 1990s, Tom* requested a pen pal. WELS Prison Ministry assigned him to Barbara. “We wrote about once a week thereafter,” says Barbara. She recalls that Tom was not a Christian when they first met. “He was a self-centered complainer, finding fault with everything and everyone and wanting revenge. He was always finding fault with the guards, which often backfired. He was a bitter man, having no family to lean on except a brother who did not write. He turned his brother and wife away. . . . He always felt he was unloved.”

When Tom’s temper got him in trouble, Barbara would remind him that God was not pleased with his attitude. “I would quote Scripture to him to make him see his sinful self,” she says. But she would also share the love of God and assurances of God’s forgiveness. Barbara requested Prison Ministry’s short Bible courses and tests for Tom as well as Meditations. Through God’s Word, Tom grew closer to God, acknowledging his sin. He also grew closer to Barbara, calling her Mother or Mom.

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18).

My Christian Life sidebar March 2022Throughout their long correspondence, Tom was in poor health due to a weak heart. Eventually he needed a wheelchair and frequent hospitalizations. In January 2021, he contracted COVID-19 and became very ill. The 69-year-old wrote his last letter to Barbara from the hospital.

My Dearest Mother,
The reason you have not heard from me is I have been in the hospital for three weeks with COVID-19. I am not sure I will make it. The doctors are doing all they can. . . . This is the only letter I will be able to write. Mom, I want to say a few words. You are the best mother and friend anyone could ever have. You are the most caring and loving person anyone or myself could ever have. Thank you so very much for all the love you have given me, for all you have done for me. You are my angel and my angel sent from above. . . . You are in my prayers all the time. I have asked God for forgiveness of all my sins. He is a loving, just God. . . . I fight for every breath I take. I also do a lot of praying and talking to God. I feel him next to me, Mom. . . . I am so thankful for having you in my life. God bless you and keep you always.

Barbara discovered that Tom died five days after he wrote this letter.

Now Barbara wrote another letter—this one to Tom’s sister-in-law. She included the last letter Tom wrote to her. Says Barbara, “[Tom’s sister-in-law] wrote back to me and said, ‘I know he loved you like a mother. Was this the same man who was always so full of hatred?’ She was relieved and grateful.”

Tom signed his last letter to Barbara, “Your Son, Always and Forever.” How fitting! Because of God’s grace to Tom and all believers, Barbara looks forward to joining Tom always and forever in heaven.

*Tom’s name has been changed to protect his identity.

Author: Ann Ponath
Volume 109, Number 03
Issue: March 2022

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Ann M. Ponath

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