Sometimes God gives a missionary a changed ministry focus, far different from what was originally planned by human wisdom. We see this in Acts 16:6-10, where Paul was prevented from preaching God’s Word in the province of Asia, and instead was redirected by the Holy Spirit in a vision (Paul says by “the Spirit of Jesus”) to go to Macedonia (present day Greece). The living God had determined that the Greeks were ready at that point in time to hear the Gospel of salvation in His Son, Jesus Christ. In effect, God closed the door to a Gospel ministry in Asia and opened the door to preach the good news of Jesus in a region far to the west—a region ready to “put on the breastplate of faith and love” (1 Thessalonians 5:8 ESV).
God redirected our ministry to Germany
Now, my wife Jennie and I have never received any visions from God, but world events during our first ministry made our location too dangerous to work in. (For security reasons, I cannot reveal our first location—but suffice it to say it was a very dangerous place). So, guided by the mission needs of the Office of International Mission of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), Jennie and I were sent to Kaiserslautern, Germany, to begin work supporting the Christian chaplaincy efforts of the United States Armed Forces in conjunction with the Kaiserslautern Evangelical Lutheran Church (KELC).
The beginning of a new prison ministry
When we arrived in Europe three years ago, we made the U.S. military aware that we were available to support Christian Army and Air Force chaplains in their work of strengthening the Christian faith of the local troops. The U.S. Army was open to the help Jennie and I could provide, since Jennie is a trained LCMS deaconess and I have been on the LCMS clergy roster for more than thirty years. When the Army learned that I had previous experience working as a staff chaplain for the Indiana Department of Corrections, they encouraged me to help support the US Army chaplains at the Sembach Disciplinary Barracks—a US military prison only twenty minutes’ drive from our new missionary station in Kaiserslautern.
As a volunteer pastor at the Sembach Disciplinary Barracks for the last three years, I have taught a class entitled “Spiritual Resiliency.” The content of this class is essentially the basics of the Christian faith, or “Christianity 101.” For a total of three hours a week, I, along with various members of our church team teach God’s Word with an emphasis on how Jesus will help anyone who looks to Him in faith. We cover Jesus’ parables and basic Bible knowledge, history and stories. We also teach Christian doctrine (the Trinity, the Person and Work of Christ, Holy Baptism, etc.). Once we develop a relationship with the prisoners, we are able to share truths of the Christian faith, e.g., the fact that all sin is forgiven at Jesus’ cross, and that our Lord tosses no one aside.
We teach the inmates that because Jesus is risen, Christians can face the future with hope—no matter how hopeless the world appears at present.
Sharing the Good News to inmates who are in despair
The incarcerated soldiers and airmen we visit are usually at the lowest point in their lives. Because of their crimes, their military career is now uncertain with the looming possibility of dishonorable discharge from the service. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and the good news that God NEVER gives up on us, rings loud and clear. Through faith in the Savior, our Lord restores us to a forgiven relationship with our living God. These Biblical truths are so crucial for these people to hear in their time of desperate need.
This past winter, the Army chaplain overseeing the prison and representing the 18th Military Police Brigade, the Military Police Corps, and the US Army, acknowledged the dedicated service of our Lutheran team from KELC by presenting us with a certificate of recognition. The inscription on the certificate reads in part, “For outstanding support and ministry to our prisoners at the United States Army Regional Correctional Facility-Europe. Your professionalism, dedication and expertise are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service.”
This certificate of recognition was not expected by our Lutheran team. Our team’s desire is only to serve our Lord Jesus Christ. Being recognized by the US Army was nonetheless a great joy and provided us all a feeling of satisfaction. We know that this prison ministry, which is supported by our donors, is being directed by God. We not only serve our God, but we also “serve the neighbor” by helping those who struggle with hopelessness within prison walls.
And Jesus said in Matthew 25; “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? And when did we see you a stranger, and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these brothers, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:37-40 (ESV)
by Rev. Joseph Asher