Reaching Out to Inmates with the Love of Christ
About the Guest
What do you think of those serving time? For many, prisoners are the throw-away people, and inherently evil, but Wrightsville Prison Chaplain Bruce Cunningham reminds us that they're just like you and me. Bruce tells how he first got involved in prison ministry and how God has given him a passion to help and serve these men, most of whom are fatherless.
Prison Chaplain Bruce Cunningham reminds us that prison inmates are just like you and me. Bruce tells how God has given him a passion to help and serve these men, most of whom are fatherless.
Reaching Out to Inmates with the Love of Christ
Bob: Bruce Cunningham has spent more than two decades, now, working with inmates in state prisons. He says the men he works with are not much different than you and me.
Bruce: When you think about a prisoner, you think about a criminal / you think about a felon. Typically, people think of them as throw-away people. They tend to think of them as people who are inherently evil; but the truth is, they’re very normal people. I would say, for every inmate inside the prison, there are dozens of people out on the street that are very much just like them; but they have the same mentality, the same emotional makeup, the same kind of relationships, and things of that nature.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, July 21st. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk to Bruce Cunningham today about how he is encouraging men in prison to learn how to step up. Stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Monday edition. Does this happen to you?—I find myself these days—I’m watching sporting events and the press conferences afterwards and all of this. I’ll hear a player or a coach say, “Yes, So-and-so really stepped up. He was really stepping up!” I just think, “They must have been reading Dennis’s book.” [Laughter]
Dennis: Well, I heard it before the book came out. So, I have to say I probably stole it from them in the first place. [Laughter] You know, we are going to talk about men stepping up—but maybe a different kind of men. We have a guy who has really given birth to an interesting idea—it is the idea of men stepping up in prison. Now, that’s an interesting idea.
Dennis: Bob, you helped create the video series, Stepping Up: A Call to Courageous Manhood®. Did you have any idea, when you were creating that—even though session four was recorded in a prison—
Bob: —mostly takes place in a prison—as we went and interviewed a man who has been behind bars for more than two decades and who has found a way to disciple other men inside of a prison out in Colorado. But certainly, we weren’t thinking, “You know, I bet inmates at prisons are going to want to watch this series.” That wasn’t the target audience for the Stepping Up video series any more than it was your target audience when you wrote the book, Stepping Up.
Dennis: Exactly. And so, as a result, a guy named Bruce Cunningham stepped up, and stepped in to our lives, and challenged us to get our borders a little broader a bit. He joins us on FamilyLife Today. Bruce, welcome to our spot in the neighborhood.
Bruce: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Dennis: It’s interesting because Bruce has been in the general correctional field— working in prisons or with prisoners—for more than 25 years. He’s worked in California and Arkansas. You and your wife have six children, three grandchildren.
Bruce: Yes sir.
Dennis: I want to go back to the beginning here and find out: “How in the world did you end up being a chaplain in prison?”
Bruce: I was in the Air Force many years ago. I found employment with the state of California, working in inventory control, which is what I did in the Air Force. I was working in the warehouse at a prison—worked for the state of California.
As I was working there, I became friends with the chaplain at the facility. I was very active in our local church—I was very active in the ministry at the church and what have you. I was always very interested in expounding the gospel and getting the gospel into people’s lives. I could see the desperate need in the lives of these men that are inside the prison.
As I developed a friendship with the chaplain, he would allow me to come and preach. He would have me counsel the inmates. He would have me perform baptisms for him.
I got involved in prison ministry just because of the fact that I worked at a prison, and I saw the need, and had a heart for ministry anyway. What ended up happening, as a process of time, he retired from California and, ironically, he moved to Arkansas. The position came open. At that particular point in my life, I had the credentials necessary. With a lot of help from the bishop that was overseeing our organization out in California, I was able to apply for and get the position as chaplain. My wife and I talked about it / prayed about it a great deal—and really kind of decided, “This is a move that I need to make in my life because I love ministry more than I love warehousing and inventory control.”
Dennis: You were talking more about preaching and about baptizing these guys than about how the inventory was working; huh?
Bruce: Indeed. The chaplain that was there would actually send inmates to my office in the warehouse so I could counsel them, from time to time, because he had a big counseling load.
I just fell in love with it. I thought, “Wow, what a great gig!” You know, “I get to preach, I get to pray, I get to study the Word of God, I get to disciple young men as they grow in the Lord and everything, and I get paid to do it!” At the time, my wife and I, like you said, we have six children. I had more than I could handle at home as well as at work. I thought, “Well, if I can combine these and be a minister for a living, that’s going to work for me.” The Lord made it happen, to my surprise, because I really felt unqualified in a lot of ways.
Dennis: What’s the biggest misconception you’ve found that people outside a penitentiary or prison have about prisoners?
Bruce: They tend to think of them as throw-away people. They tend to think of them as people who are inherently evil.
When you think about a prisoner, you think about a criminal / you think about a felon. Typically, people think of them as, I don’t know, some kind of way genetically-altered to where they’re not normal people. But the truth is—they’re very normal people. I would say, for every inmate inside the prison, there are dozens of people out in the street that are very much just like them—but they just haven’t either gotten caught for something yet, or they haven’t made some of the same decisions—but they have the same mentality, the same emotional makeup, the same kind of relationships, and things of that nature. That would probably be the biggest misconception I’ve noticed.
Dennis: I have to tell you a story. Of course, you’ve heard it because you invited me to come to the prison, here in Arkansas, where you’re the chaplain. I’d never been in a prison before.
Dennis: I’d done some things I could have gone to jail for, and I told those prisoners that. I said: “I don’t know you and what you’ve done, and you don’t know me and what I’ve done.
Dennis: “But I can just tell you, I’m not holding any stones to throw at you. It’s a privilege to be able to come and share what Christ has done in my life with you.” I said, “I made a phone call to a guy in prison ministry. I said, ‘Tell me what I need to know because I’ve never been in a prison!’”
You know what he did? He did exactly what you just did—he described them—except that he used a word that was even worse than a throw-away. I was not ready for this word. He said, “Prisoners are the lepers of society.” In other words, it’s even a notch below throw-away—they’re diseased—
Dennis: —you wouldn’t want to go near. He said, “Every young man / every man that you meet in that prison really needs you, as a man, to engage with him, as a man.”
Bruce: That’s exactly correct.
Dennis: And you know what I did? I went there—and had I not had this conversation, I would not have done this because, when I walked into the prison—Wrightsville State Penitentiary—when I walked in there, I felt it. I felt kind of like a magnetic push away.
Bruce: Yes sir.
Dennis: I had, as an act of my will, to move up and into conversations with those men, and shake their hands—later on, hug them / embrace them—look them in the eye / tell them I was proud of them—we’ll get to that story a little bit later.
Bob: Yes. We should jump back and talk about why Dennis wound up behind bars—at least, for one evening—in the first place. All of that had to do with your awareness of the Stepping Up video series and a desire to see that used in the Wrightsville Prison.
Bruce: Yes sir. Not sure how far back we should go because, in my case, my hunger, and thirst, and desire to see these men educated in what it means to be a man goes quite a ways back.
Bob: How far back?
Bruce: Back to the days when my children were toddlers.
Dennis: So, it didn’t go back to a prison—it went back to your own life—
Bruce: —went back to my own life.
Dennis: —your own struggle with being a man.
Bruce: Yes, indeed. Yes, absolutely.
Dennis: How so?
Bruce: Well, I met my wife in church. I became a Christian when I was 20 years old. The whole time I was growing up, I didn’t go to church at all. My dad was a violent alcoholic.
So, when I got hold of Jesus Christ, I was excited about it. I was very glad to be on the right side of things, at this point. I’m like: “Wow! I’m on the winning team, finally!” When you’re the child of a violent alcoholic, life is pretty chaotic. I was glad to see some order in my life.
Unfortunately, the church that I came to Christ in was a rather self-centered kind of a church. A lot of the focus was on the building the church itself, not so much on building the family.
Over the years, I developed a philosophy that simply says: “If the church builds the family, the family will build the church; but whenever the church tries to build the church, it robs from the family because it takes people who are dedicated to Christ and uses their dedication, even at the expense of the family.”
It’s really unfortunate. You find people, like me, who become a ministerial-aholic—where I was a workaholic. I was very involved in all sorts of forms of ministry in the church. My wife was struggling with our children at home—trying to raise them in my absenteeism—because I had an eight-hour a day job and I’d do a good 20 hours a week, at least, in ministry—in different forms—at the church.
I was in charge of this, I was the head of that, I was the assistant Sunday school superintendant—you know—and so-and-so-forth. It kind of robbed our family.
By the time I really learned—through programs like yours, and also from Focus on the Family®, and through various other ministers I came across—by the time I had a working understanding of what it meant to be a father, my kids were teenagers. It was too late to go back and do a lot of the stuff that needed to be done.
I mean, I raised them in church. They came to church every Sunday—they were always in church: “Our family’s always in church.” But they needed a dad—they needed me to interact with them.
Dennis: You said you grew up in a home where you had an abusive, violent alcoholic father. What was your image of a man, at that point?—not only you didn’t have a positive image—but what did it look like?
Bruce: Well, my dad was my hero when I was a little boy. It’s kind of hard to describe, but I was my dad’s favorite. Everybody kind of knew it. We had my older brother and two younger sisters. My mom was absolutely wonderful. She did a wonderful job of trying to keep our household in order and keep things nice for us.
She was a wonderful wife and mother, as I look back. I’d say she did a great job, especially considering the circumstances.
My dad didn’t really start drinking heavily until I was about ten or eleven years old. So, in my early childhood years, my dad was the coach of our Little League baseball team and things like that. He was my hero.
But when I was between fifth and sixth grade, he began to drink pretty heavily. It would cause him to become violent—like a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde experience. Life became very chaotic and what have you. My view of manhood became skewed, as you can imagine. I became very confused because I wasn’t sure. I was loyal to my dad—my dad was the greatest thing in the world—but, at the same time, he was doing a lot of really bad stuff.
By the time I became 16—when I was growing up, I had a 3.5 grade point average. I was doing great in school and everything else; but by the time I was toward the end of tenth grade, I began to drop off and use drugs and all kinds of stuff.
I got out of my dad’s house and joined the Air Force—moved out to California with the Air Force—and far away from where my parents were and everything. Now, I was an adult, on my own, in the world. I was in the Air Force—about two years in—that’s when I found Christ.
The Lord transformed my life completely. It was an overnight, almost, experience. I instantly stopped doing drugs—instantly left all that behind. I knew that now that I was a Christian, it was about Jesus Christ. I just fell in love with Him. That part has continued all the way to this day.
But I didn’t really have a lot of the building blocks of what it takes to be a dad—to be the kind of husband I needed to be—to be the kind of dad I needed to be. Unfortunately, the church I went to didn’t really teach it like it needed to be taught. Unfortunately, I know a lot of good churches do, but the one I was going to really kind of didn’t.
Bob: So, when it dawned on you / when you had this epiphany that you had not been the dad you should have been, what’d you do?
Bruce: I got angry. I got really angry. I spent a few years being extremely angry. By that time, I had become a state chaplain, in California. It really angered me that I had missed out on—because I knew, by then, the power that was in my hands to help mold and shape my kids, and what could have been. By this time, I’m watching the results of how it shouldn’t have gone and what happens when you don’t do it the way God has designed it to be done. Not that any father is perfect—I didn’t ever imagine that I would have been a perfect father in any circumstances—but I know there’s a number of things I could have done a lot better.
One thing that really frustrated me was when I learned that every little boy in the world has one question on his mind that he looks primarily for dad to answer. That question is: “Do I have what it takes?”
I believe that God has designed for his dad, above all other people on the planet, to say: “You have it. You’re the best ballplayer I’ve ever seen,” or, “You did a good job on that test. You have what it takes.” “I’m going to give you a rite of passage. I want you to come from this level up to this level now because I’m the authority figure in your life, and you have what it takes. Come on up here.”
When dad gives that rite of passage to his son, the son turns around and gives back something to his father. He gives his father loyalty. His father becomes his hero. His father becomes—he worships his father, whom he respects. I believe that God has designed for father and son and father and daughter relationships really to be, in many respects, like that. I know there’s none that are perfect; but in many respects, that’s a dynamic that I realize I could have had a lot more of.
Then I began to notice—in the lives of the young men that were incarcerated at my facility—what was happening in their lives as a result of what they didn’t get when they were kids. I realized that a big part of what I could be doing, as a chaplain—where I’m in a unique position to bring discipleship into these young men’s lives—and they are at that age where they are going to get out, and they are going to get married—they are going to bring children into the world—if they haven’t done it already.
Basically, they’re at that pivotal period between 18, and 22, or 23, where they’re pivoting from mostly child to mostly man. There’s a window of time there where they’re kind of open to receive a new idea of where their life is headed, as an adult, because their childhood is behind them.
I was in a unique place to kind of help guide them where they need to go. The inmates’ lives—if I can segue that direction—with the inmates’ lives—what had happened with them—the average inmate didn’t have a dad, at all.
Seventy-five percent did not have a dad. Another twenty percent—there was a man in the house—but he was a workaholic, or he was an alcoholic, or he was a drug addict, or he was a gang member. Only about five per cent of all male inmates in this country had a dad that was interested, and engaged, and emotionally attached to his son—huge gap.
When a young man doesn’t have a dad, or if his dad is detached from him or, for that matter, abusive, the young man typically thinks he’s the problem—he’s done something wrong—but at the same time, he has this yearning for that approval. He has that yearning for somebody to tell him he has what it takes. He thirsts for that. He doesn’t realize it, but he starts searching for someone to tell him that.
So, eventually—if it’s not a Sunday school teacher, if it’s not a football coach, if it’s not somebody that has their head screwed on kind of straight—he will find somebody down on the street corner that’s selling drugs, or he will find a gang that will take him in / put their arm around him, show him how to shoot a gun and make him feel important.
Then, at that point, he’s so thirsty for acceptance until it doesn’t really matter so much whether this is moral, or right, or wrong. It’s more an issue of “I need to be accepted somewhere.” There’s a yearning inside him that has not been fulfilled. So, he becomes part of this anti-culture and becomes one with it.
Bob: So, tell us how you first heard about the Stepping Up video series and when you thought, “That might work for what these guys in prison need.”
Bruce: What had happened—I left California and came to Arkansas. In California—there’s a lot of issues where they had to close my prison down because they were out of finances.
Dennis: How many prisoners had been in that prison?
Bruce: At the hey-day, back in 2005, there were about 2,000 inmates there at one time. As it dwindled down—they were getting ready to close it—it got down to about 400 over time. But there have been literally thousands of prisoners that have come in and out of that prison over the years.
Dennis: Most of them under the age of 25.
Bruce: All of them were—yes. This is what, back then, they called a juvenile justice facility in California. They would take young men, who’d committed a crime at 15 years old, per se—and the judge would say: “You know, even though you’ve committed a felony—an adult-style of crime—you’re too young for us to put you directly in the adult prison. We’re going to put you in a juvenile justice facility.” That’s how California does. By the time they were 18, they would come to my prison. That’s when I would start dealing with them.
Dennis: Wow. You became a father—
Bruce: I did.
Dennis: —to the fatherless.
Bruce: I did.
Dennis: So you came to Arkansas, and—
Bruce: Came to Arkansas three years ago and wound up down at Cummins Prison. I was working under the oversight of the very same chaplain that I used to work under the oversight of out in California.
He had retired from California—came to Arkansas and was working at Cummins. When I lost my position out in California, he was telling me they had positions here in Arkansas. So, I came to continue what I did. My kids were adults by then; so my wife and I came here. Cummins looked, to me, like almost 50 percent were lifers—no chance of parole.
Dennis: What an opportunity for ministry.
Bruce: Absolutely; absolutely. It’s a nuts-and-bolts ministry. It really is. When you counsel men like that, it is interesting to see how much hope they had developed, even in the absence of the opportunity to go out in the street.
Dennis: Interesting you should mention that because the prison where we did Stepping Up is actually the graduation you did it. We just came for the icing on the cake at the end. As those men stood in front of a microphone and shared the impact it had had on their lives, it hit me how much man was made to have hope in his heart.
I was thinking, “How could you have hope, being locked up?” The answer is: “If you’re in touch with who God is, and what He has for your life”—and I don’t want to rush ahead and tell the rest of the story because it really is a fantastic story of what took place at Wrightsville Prison. I’ll just give you a little sneak peek. They had almost a third of the entire prison interested in going through Stepping Up.
Bruce: Well-said. That’s correct.
Dennis: You have to hear the rest of the story.
Bob: Well, and I’ll tell you what you have to do. You have to go to FamilyLifeToday.com and see the video because there is a ten-minute video that shows you the graduation ceremony that took place at Wrightsville Prison. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com and watch what happened at the end of the ten-week Stepping Up series because some of those guys who shared that night—I mean—it was powerful.
Bruce: Yes sir.
Bob: Again, go to FamilyLifetoday.com. Click where it says, “GO DEEPER.” The video’s available for you right there.
If you’d like more information about how you could get involved in getting Stepping Up in a local prison or a state prison in the state you live in, go to FamilyLifeToday.com. There’s information available there about how to connect with the local prison chaplain and how you can help make that happen—get the resources into the local prison.
Or if you’d like to take a group of guys you know through the Stepping Up material, again, get more information when you go FamilyLifeToday.com and click the link at the top of the page that says, “GO DEEPER.” Or if you have questions, call 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Let me just say—when you help support the ministry of FamilyLife Today, this is a part of what you’re helping to support—having these kinds of resources available so they can be used in settings like the Wrightsville Prison. We appreciate those of you who partner with us in this ministry and help make this kind of ministry happen.
You can make a donation, online, today at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link in the upper right-hand corner of the page that says, “I Care,” and make an online donation. Enable us to take these resources to more prisons / more prisoners, all across the country, as well as the rest of the work that FamilyLife is doing. You can also make a donation when you call 1-800-FL-TODAY; or you can make a donation when you write to FamilyLife Today at P O Box 7111, Little Rock, AR; and our zip code is 72223.
With any donation today, we’d like to send along, as a thank-you, a CD of a message that Dennis Rainey gave at an I Still Do™ event, a number of years back, about the importance of permanence in marriage.
That CD is our gift to say: “Thank you for partnering with us and helping make the ministry of FamilyLife Today what it is. We appreciate you.”
We hope you can join us back tomorrow. We’re going to talk more with Bruce Cunningham and find out about the Stepping Up study that took place at the Wrightsville Prison earlier this year. Again, the video of the graduation is online at FamilyLifeToday.com. Click the link that says, “GO DEEPER,” when you go to our website if you’d like to watch the video.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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