Loving Those in Prison: A Ministry of Mercy

Trish Duggan


“I was in prison as a Christian for nine years without any connection whatsoever to the visible church but longing for that connection and writing letters and seeking that connection,” says Rev. Lowell Ivey, former prisoner and now OPC Minister. He urges the church, “There are many, many mature believers in prison throughout the United States, and so we need to think of them too.”

In contemplating the responsibility Christians bear towards those in prison, our thoughts often gravitate toward evangelism. Indeed, the call to share the gospel is incontrovertible. Both those who are wrongly imprisoned as well as those who are justly serving time need the transformative power of Christ. However, our Christian duty extends beyond evangelization; saving faith is just the start of what prisoners need.

Exposing a Need

Recently the OPC Committee on Diaconal Ministries (CDM) administrator, David Nakhla had an opportunity to interview Lowell for the June 1, 2024 episode of The Reformed Deacon, entitled, “Loving Those in Prison”. In the episode, Lowell describes that, at the age of 20, he was sentenced to 15 years in jail for aggravated robbery and spent a significant portion—ten years—in solitary confinement due to his involvement with a white supremacist gang. While in prison, Christ made Himself known to Lowell and saved him through a pastor and mentor’s correspondence ministry. Now an OPC minister, Lowell serves as the executive director of Metanoia Prison Ministries (a distinctly Reformed ministry organization overseen by the Ministry to North America (MNA) of the Presbyterian Church in America [PCA]). Lowell’s powerful testimony reveals the indisputable, redemptive work of Christ while exposing a great need for mercy ministry within the prison system.

The need for incarcerated individuals to experience Christian fellowship and support is evident in Lowell’s story. He knows firsthand the loneliness and fear felt behind bars. His words reveal the deep yearning he had for spiritual community and the importance of the church's tangible presence in the lives of incarcerated believers. “I didn't have a window in my cell. I could go out for an hour a day for recreation with a few other prisoners, but I couldn't see grass, I couldn't see trees, I couldn't see the sun setting. All I could see was the wall of another part of the prison for those 10 years.”

A Life of Fear

During his time in prison, Lowell lived in fear. “Imagine living 24 hours a day with a few hundred convicted criminals all around—those are your neighbors. You're constantly with people who are scrutinizing your every move. You're aware of your need to measure up to their expectations of you [while] in a very brutal and unforgiving prison culture. You cannot show even the slightest indication of fear or weakness or vulnerability, or you will be taken advantage of [and] every other human being around you reinforces those unwritten rules of prison life. Then imagine how desperate you would be for just some glimpse of warmth, some human affection, some indication of care or concern, some genuine expression of love and compassion. These are all the very things that the prison culture dismisses as weak.”

The fear and lack of love Lowell felt only emphasizes that the Christian community's responsibility must extend to integrating incarcerated Christians into the fellowship of believers. This involves visiting, discipling, and caring for them, recognizing that their spiritual growth hinges on feeling connected to the broader body of Christ. These brothers and sisters in Christ, whose home happens to be a jail cell, must know they are not forgotten, that they are part of a family that extends beyond prison walls, and must receive the full breadth of care and encouragement they need to grow in their faith.

Ministry to Jesus Himself

“Ministering to vulnerable populations of people is regarded as a ministry to Jesus Christ himself”, Lowell reminds us. Jesus says in Matthew 25:36: “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked, and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” Jesus lovingly continues, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:40)

So how do you begin to extend this love and support to the imprisoned? Lowell says, “I think the first step, as it should be, is prayer. [That is the] first and most important step. We can't do anything apart from the grace that the Lord communicates to us through his Holy Spirit. The diaconate’s work is Word and deed ministry, so the deacons can exercise leadership [in this way]” Nakhla suggests, “One way to initiate this ministry might be to add it to your deacons’ meeting agenda. Then you get the wisdom and blessing of the other deacons to begin some of these next steps.”

The next step, Lowell proposes is to, “Pinpoint a possible ministry location—a jail or a prison and then make contact. It might be the chaplain or someone in charge of programming or volunteer services.” Lowell then emphasizes the need to stick with it, “The key [is to] stay committed. That's absolutely vital because so much prison ministry is drive-by ministry.“

Lowell is keenly aware that his journey is not typical but knows firsthand the indispensable value of his mentor’s commitment. “[My story] was what the Lord had for me. That's not going to be possible in every situation, but I'm so thankful that [my mentor] took such an interest in my life and in my spiritual growth and even encouraged me to go on to seminary.”

As Lowell Ivey's life testifies, the journey from incarceration to spiritual leadership serves as a reminder of the expansive responsibility we hold as Christians—to evangelize, yes, but also to embrace, support, and nurture those in prison as integral members of our church community.

You can listen to the full episode of the podcast, where Lowell suggests multiple ways to reach out to the incarcerated, by going to your favorite podcast player or visiting thereformeddeacon.org. Look for the June 2024 episode, “Loving Those in Prison.”


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