What do you do when someone comes knocking on your door asking for help?
That’s a question the pastors and several members of St. Paul’s, New Ulm, Minn., asked when people would stop at the church looking for a handout. Or when recently released inmates from the nearby county jail would visit because they had nowhere else to go. A gift card to the local gas station or money to help them get by just didn’t seem like the right answer. “You’re trying to help but what you’re doing doesn’t really help them,” says Nate Scharf, pastor at St. Paul’s. “You feel like an enabler. That was what was on our hearts.”
So they contacted WELS Prison Ministry and Institutional Ministries* to find out what else they could do to help both the ex-convicts in the area as well as others in the community in need.
From there, the New Ulm-area congregations created the Minnesota River Valley Mentoring Program, which offers a Bible-based, Christ-centered growth program to those just released from prison as well as others in need. “For our congregation, it went for a large part from a system of well-intentioned handouts to a system of how do we engage [people in need] and point them to Christ,” says Scharf. “We don’t want to ignore their needs, but we want to meet their needs in the right order.”
Scharf says the group started by developing boundaries and safeguards for both the mentors and the mentees and compiling a list of community resources and aids to which they could refer people. Workshops were held to train mentors who would be willing to help and support people in need.
Jeff Boyce is one of those mentors. When he attended his first mentoring training session, he wasn’t so sure he was cut out for it. “I had a lot of questions and concerns. We were talking about people in prison or getting out of prison. It was dealing with an entirely different slice of life that I knew nothing about,” he says. “It was truly a case of the Scripture verse that says, ‘In your weakness, my power is made perfect.’ ”
Once Boyce decided to become a mentor, it didn’t take long for him jump in. A few weeks after training, Scharf asked him to witness the baptism of a man who was out on parole. Boyce began working with this man, but after only a few weeks, the man broke parole and ended up back in jail. “That’s when my ministry changed to ministering to those in prison,” says Boyce. He began visiting the man in jail, e-mailing him encouragement, and correcting the Bible study tests he took from the WELS Prison Ministry booklets. When he was released, Boyce helped the man find a place to live and connected him to community services for other helps. Boyce also helped him find a job and then worked with him to get financial aid when he wanted to go back to school.
And all the while, Boyce let Christ shine. “One of my jobs as a mentor is to give them a new way of looking at things, and the best place for that new look to come from is the Scriptures,” says Boyce, who shares that he likes to use verses from Proverbs to encourage those he is mentoring. “And whenever I share the Word, I end up being strengthened as well.”
Boyce shares that being involved in this program also has changed his outlook. “It made those words of Jesus about loving those who are in great need very real to me,” he says.
Currently the Minnesota River Valley Mentoring Program has about 8 active mentors. More than 30 more people have gone through training. The mentors support and encourage people who have gone through a crisis, ex-convicts who are trying to re-establish themselves in society, those struggling with alcoholism, and even members who just need help dealing with life issues. Monthly meetings allow the mentors to encourage and offer advice to one another.
The Minnesota River Valley Mentoring Program also is sharing resources and information with other area congregations that are interested in getting involved.
“As Christians, we have something to offer,” says Scharf. “We have the Bread of Life to give.”
If you are interested in exploring a mentoring program like this for yourself, your congregation, or another group, contact Dave Hochmuth, director of WELS Prison Ministry, at firstname.lastname@example.org; 414-256-3243.
*A WELS parasynodical based in Wisconsin that partners with WELS Prison Ministry.
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Volume 106, Number 4
Issue: April 2019