Bam! His truck lurched and skidded to a stop from the impact. Mark couldn’t believe it. He was sure the woman yelling at him in a fit of road rage would leave it at that – just yelling. But, here he was, staring in disbelief at the cratered bumper of his truck while the out of control driver waved her arms violently and shouted beside him. The adrenaline flowed for a while between the two but eventually faded, and cooler heads prevailed. Convinced the worst was over and eager to enjoy the rest of this now clouded Easter Sunday, Mark swapped insurance information with the other driver and made for his truck. Unfortunately, the day had other plans. Not to escape so easily, the other driver’s mother burst from the car, bee lining for Mark in a fury of fists, arms and elbows. Mercifully, he tried to defend himself and pushed her away, when she lost her balance and fell to the ground. Seizing the opportunity to be rid of this anger-filled family, Mark shifted his truck into drive and powered from the scene, his left tire bumping over something as he exited.
“This was obviously an accident,” the sheriff told him. “If I had been in your shoes, I would have done the same thing.” But the sheriff’s condolences would prove hollow, as Mark was detained and learned that the bump he felt as he left the scene, was the woman’s hip passing under his tires. Hope not lost, the woman made an eventual recovery and charges were not filed…until three years later. A once distant memory became a fearful reality for Mark. Assured by his attorney that all would be fine, Mark entered court on February 19, 2003 to face a charge of Serious Injury by a Motor Vehicle. But all, in fact, would not be fine. The judge did not see this as a simple, unfortunate outcome brought on by the actions of the “victim.” Instead, the judge announced to a stunned and disbelieving Mark Spencer that he would be sentenced to fifteen years with a minimum to serve seven. What had started out as a lovely Easter day three years before, had now turned into a nightmare.
How could this be possible? The unfairness…the injustice…the extreme and unconscionable punishment that clearly didn’t fit the (non)crime. Was this a cruel joke? Sadly, no. Mark’s example of an unfair and unjust outcome echoes examples from times past and present, and the story of Mark’s encounter is repeated every day in our world right now. Most of us know of horrific injustices and acts of unfairness, and many of you may be suffering as a victim of this today. So, what do we do about it? How do we make sense of it all? Let the story continue…
“What!?” Andrea Shelton just learned that her brother was going to prison for a minimum of seven years. Her body numb from the news and her mind racing with disbelief, she felt helpless and devastated. Never in her wildest dreams did she imagine something like this happening to someone she knew, especially not to someone in her own family. “I didn’t know anyone in prison, and I didn’t want to know anyone in prison,” she says. But once Mark began serving his sentence, it was a reality that she had to face. She worried for his safety and stayed up at night wondering what prison was like for him. It had never mattered to her how prisoners were treated or what they experienced inside the prison walls. They were prisoners after all – criminals – and they deserved what they got, right? But now that her brother was inside, everything changed. She imagined the loneliness, isolation, fear, and depression that these men and women must face every day, and it broke her heart.
After Mark had been in prison for six weeks, Andrea received a letter from him. In it, he pleaded with his sister for help. Surprisingly, the help was not for himself, but for others who were inside with him. Mark expressed to Andrea that in spite of all the negative, amongst the pain and fear, there was a light inside the dark walls. And this light was his chaplain. Mark explained that the prison chaplains were the only ones who cared about the inmates’ souls. They showed compassion and kindness when no one else did. They talked about hope and renewal and grace. Mark, along with many others, had found comfort in the presence of these individuals, but there was one problem. Andrea had heard that all of the chaplains in the state of Georgia were about to be removed due to budget cuts.
“Andrea, bring the water of life to these men,” he implored. Now, although Andrea was small in stature and a young mother of two, simply living her life in the “regular” world, she possessed a unique strength, vibrant energy and boisterous faith in God that somehow made her stand taller and shine brighter, which is certainly what gave her brother the confidence in her ability to help. And after much prayer, it didn’t take long for Andrea to realize that God was calling her to keep these chaplains from being removed from the prison system.
Her first stop was the office of the Director of Chaplaincy for the Department of Corrections. To her dismay, she was practically waved away when she arrived and flippantly told that her request was “too little, too late.” Undeterred, she went next to the Georgia State Capitol. As a law student, Andrea had served as an intern in the governor’s office, so she knew her way around the political arena. This experience would prove valuable as she traveled door to door furiously advocating for the chaplains. Unfortunately, most of the legislators didn’t even know that the chaplains were going to be cut and most didn’t care. “It was just a line item on a budget that they barely paid attention to,” Andrea says. Having few options left and knowing that it may prove to be impossible, she knew what she must do. Andrea needed to meet with Georgia’s Governor Perdue himself.
“Please help me, Lord,” Andrea prayed one morning as tears streamed down her face. She had spent weeks going from office to office at the Capitol making her case and nothing had seemed to work. With only two days left before the budget vote, she felt powerless. She couldn’t imagine these chaplains being taken out of a system so in need of help, but what else could she do? Just then, the phone rang. On the other line was a woman from Macon, Georgia. Somehow, she had heard about what Andrea was trying to do and wanted to help.
“You go down to the governor’s office and take command of the land that God has given you,” she urged. Andrea sat in disbelief at this miraculous call, having just read in the Bible about the Lord encouraging Joshua to take command of the Promised Land. It was abundantly clear to Andrea that this was a sign from God.
The woman continued, “You must find a lady named Joy Hawkins. She will help you.” So, Andrea hung up the phone, grabbed her keys, and headed to the Capitol that very moment. With great anticipation, she rushed into the governor’s reception area, but was only told to sit down and wait. A short time later, out of the office a woman appeared. And who do you think it was? Yep, it was Joy Hawkins, the very same woman the caller from Macon told her to seek out. What clearer sign of God’s hand at work could one need? Joy was eager to assist, as her own mother had created a pen pal program for prisoners and taught English to inmates many years ago. After five exhausting hours of delay, Andrea met with Governor Perdue. And in the end, through tearful persuasion and the grace of God, he agreed to keep the chaplains in place! To Andrea, this was so much bigger than her brother now. She set out from this point forward to advocate for the chaplains in every prison in Georgia and provide them with the support they needed to minister to the inmates through the love of Jesus Christ.
And HeartBound Ministries was created.
When life is unfair and unjust, what can we do? We can feel paralyzed, defeated and broken. It seems natural to want to give up. But what if God has a plan for your pain? What if God can make something good out of the bad you are experiencing? Romans 8:28 promises, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him.” Do you believe that the unfairness you’ve experienced could be used by God for something good? Rick Warren writes, “When we go through difficulties in life, the first thing we try to do is blame somebody else. But it doesn’t matter where your problems come from – God still has a purpose for it…Even when you do stupid things, God can use it. Even when other people hurt you intentionally, He can use it. Even when the devil plans bad things for your life, God can bring good out of it.” What if, my friend, your Heavenly Father has a plan for the injustice you have endured? Would it give you hope? Could it even give your life purpose?
Since that day in the governor’s office in the Spring of 2003, Andrea and HeartBound Ministries have been supporting chaplains and reaching the prison community within thirty-three prisons in Georgia. She equips the chaplains with whatever they need to minister to the inmates – providing Bibles, Christian literature, speakers, holiday parties, art classes and even hygiene. Passionate about rehabilitation, Andrea firmly believes in the power of God’s love to change the hearts of the men and women behind bars. “Prisoners already know they’re broken,” Andrea says. “I never have to convince them that they have a sin problem. But many prisoners have only heard about condemnation and hell. I love sharing Good News, because the best change we are ever going to see is when Jesus transforms a person. That’s when you see lasting change.”
Each month, Andrea travels to different prisons throughout the state, greeting the inmates and correctional staff with her bright smile and kind words. I ask her, “How do you manage all of this? Where does your energy come from?” She answers with a giggle, “Well, it’s not Red Bull! God honestly fills me up so much that I want to explode sometimes. I just treat the inmates like they are real people. They are not used to that. Prison has taught me not to judge. The court judge may give the sentencing, but hopefully with what we do, we can step in and rehabilitate.”
Andrea is, indeed, succeeding in the rehabilitation efforts of HeartBound Ministries. And she is constantly amazed by what transformation can occur through the love of Jesus.“Some inmates are walking so intensely with God that it radiates out of them,” Andrea says. “Some even look twenty years younger than their age. Considering where they are, it’s got to be Jesus!”
Could knowing Jesus be transformative in your life? And with that transformation, could you be instrumental in someone else’s rehabilitation? Andrea, first through her experience with her brother, and then through God’s loving power, was able to turn a negative situation into an opportunity to help others. All around us there are people who are hurting. Are we so focused on our own stories, our own life’s shortcomings, that we barely notice other people in need? Billy Graham said that “God has given us two hands, one to receive with and the other to give.” What if we reevaluate our perspective and choose to look outside our own story and seek to be a light inside another’s? Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Do you ever wonder what incredible things could be accomplished if we, like Jesus, used our lives to serve?
It is important to note that HeartBound’s goal is not only to positively affect the inmates; there is great benefit to all of society with what Andrea is achieving. She explains, “It saves the state $21,000 a year when an inmate does not come back into the prison system. As it is now, seventy-three percent of inmates will return to prison after they are released, but studies show that this percentage drops to fourteen percent if the inmates study the Bible while incarcerated.” I don’t know about you, but I think that’s an amazing statistic!
Andrea is also passionate about the children affected by their parents’ incarceration. Around 72,000 children in Georgia have a parent in prison, and HeartBound has established many programs to help these kids who are often forgotten. They have implemented the following:
- Malachi Dads program, a parenting training program for incarcerated fathers;
- Returning Hearts Celebration, an event that unites children and their incarcerated parent on the prison grounds for a day of games, food, and relationship building to facilitate the healing process and break the cycle of crime and incarceration in families;
- Little Readers Program, which allows children of incarcerated parents to see and hear their mothers and fathers personally reading a book to them on DVD;
- The 100 Shares Children’s Visitation Center, which is a space where children and their incarcerated mother can play, eat and relax in a fun, family-friendly setting.
There is no way to measure the lasting effect these programs are having on the countless inmates and their children. And to think, this all came about from that fateful Easter Sunday afternoon over thirteen years ago!
In addition to the inmates and their families, Andrea’s personal touch with each of the chaplains in the system enables them to successfully follow God’s call to “remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself” (Hebrews 13:3). Day in and day out, these men and women devote their gifts to the inmates, providing encouragement and love. Through the years, HeartBound Ministries has often had to step in and pay for their salaries when various commissioners have chosen to cut their income. Her loving efforts inspire the chaplains because they would not be able to minister to these prisoners without her support. Chaplain Mike Sapp, from Dooley State prison says, “Andrea is very special to me. I got saved behind bars and went into the ministry when I got out. I have a heart to help men in prison…Andrea paid for my salary for nineteen months so I could perform the calling that God had given me. If it hadn’t been for Andrea, that never would have happened.” Chaplain Kimberlyn Sinkfield from Metro Transitional Center says, “Andrea is a blessing to everyone she encounters. I have never met anyone like her. She is so in love with God and lives her life to serve. She just goes at it full on.” These are but two testimonials of countless others. But don’t expect Andrea to boast with all of this praise. She humbly considers herself the one who is blessed. “I’m richer for knowing people in prison,” she says. “Remember, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. My prison is different from yours, but we are all the same.”
If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to Andrea’s brother, Mark, the story just keeps getting better. After serving sixteen months and four days, Mark was successful in an appeal and was released. The judge modified his sentence and his status was changed to first offender status, which his attorney said “he had never seen happen before in his career.” Mark now has no criminal record and works in a nuclear facility. “God flipped it,” Andrea says with a grin.
So, my friend, what is to be learned from this inspiring story? Clearly, Mark could have been focused only on the injustice of his own suffering, and Andrea could have been consumed with bitterness at the unfairness of the situation. But instead, they both looked outside themselves and sought to use their difficulties to make a lasting change in God’s world. How do these choices inspire you? Remember that you, too, have a story. And the pain you’ve endured in your life is part of this story. But it doesn’t always have to be negative. There could be a deeper purpose for it, another chapter to it all. Maybe, just like Andrea and Mark, you could use your hurtful experience to help God’s hurting people. Maybe you could use the darkness in your past to bring light into another’s life today. Joyce Meyer says, “Instead of asking God to bless you, ask Him to make you a blessing.” We often wonder why God lets bad things happen or why He doesn’t jump in to relieve the pain on this earth. Sometimes I suspect He is simply waiting for us to act. Maybe there is something that tugs at your heart right now. Could God be the one doing the tugging? And maybe it is because He desires for you, like Andrea Shelton, to take what was once unfair and use it to leave your unique and lasting imprint on His world…
To support or learn more about HeartBound Ministries, please visit www.heartboundministries.com