REMEMBERING THOSE OFTEN FORGOTTEN
WRITTEN BY: KATE HUFFMAN
While the holiday season is a time of joy and cheer for most, it brings pain and isolation for others. Spending Christmas away from your family is never easy, especially if the separation comes from incarceration.
Lemuel Vega is familiar with the loneliness of spending the holidays imprisoned. At nineteen years of age, he found himself behind bars with an expected prison sentence of ten to twenty years. When he didn’t see any hope for his future, a group of volunteers visited his prison, singing songs and hymns and sharing the good news of the gospel. The thought that someone cared enough to visit him during his darkest time left a lasting impression on Lemuel. After being released from prison, he turned to Christ and began attending a Bible study. Remembering the impact the volunteers’ prison visit had on his life, he resolved to share his testimony and spread the word of Christ to others who needed it. With the help of his study group, Lemuel put the first care packages together to bring to a local jail in 1995. Thus, the ministry known today as Christmas Behind Bars was born.
The incarceration rate of the United States of America was the highest in the world in September 2013 at 716 per 100,000 of the national population. While the United States represents about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, it houses around 22 percent of the world’s prisoners*. Because many of those imprisoned might be forgotten by society or excommunicated by their families, Christmas Behind Bars’ mission is to let them know they are not alone and there is hope for change through Christ. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of many volunteers lead by Lemuel and Donna Vega, the ministry has grown each year. It’s now reaching over fifty thousand inmates annually, operating year-round, and has expanded from prisons and jails in Indiana to more than twenty other states! Each time Lemuel visits a new jail or prison, he shares his personal testimony. It’s his hope that for many of the inmates, hearing that a former convict found redemption and purpose through Christ can inspire the desire for positive change in their own lives.
The ROP Shop and Outdoor Concepts recently had the opportunity to volunteer on behalf of Christmas Behind Bars. On Friday, December 20th, we loaded up and headed over to Muncie County Jail. During the four hours spent in the jail, our volunteers passed out care packages to each inmate. The care packages contained snack foods, toiletries, a hand-written thinking-of-you card, devotional books, and a Bible, and were assembled by volunteers of Christmas Behind Bars. We took the time to chat with the inmates, getting to know them on a more personal level and letting them know we care about them. Many of the three hundred and fifty people we spoke with are mothers, fathers, grandmothers, and grandfathers who won’t see their families at all this holiday season. It was a joy and an honor to spread some love and cheer to men and women who might not otherwise experience it during this difficult time of year.
There are thousands of other jails and prisons in the United States, and even with the reach Christmas Behind Bars has, there are still hundreds of thousands of inmates who need to hear the good news of the gospel. If you would like to volunteer with Christmas Behind Bars, they visit prisons and jails throughout the year, not just around the holidays! They are always in need of caring people to spread the word of God. If the thought of entering a jail is intimidating to you, they can also use volunteers to help pack care packages, sort food donations or write encouraging letters signed with first name only. Donations are also welcome in the form of men’s clothing and shoes, snack foods, and monetary gifts. If you’d like to know more about Christmas Behind Bars and its mission or would wish to donate, please visit www.christmasbehindbars.org or call (260) 824–3182. You can also send donations or first-name signed cards to them at PO Box 474, Bluffton, IN 46714.
*According to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States
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