United Methodists are very scrupulous about prison ministry. Because criminals within the correctional facilities are often sentenced according to secular laws. Therefore, the mission of the church prison ministry is to use the opportunity to share Christ with the “astray souls”. God “imprisoned” these people “under the law” in order to prepare them for the faith in Christ: “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed” (Galatians 3:23, NRSV).
There are over 700,000 prisoners in Russian Federation. That’s why, for the Methodists in Eurasia episcopal area there exists a widest opportunity for saving “astray souls” within the prison ministry. In the Central Black Soil District (with Alexander Pererva as DS), a local “Revival” in Latnaya UMC pastor Galina Kolesnikova has been serving in this field for fifteen years already. United Methodist Church “Revival” in Latnaya village of the Voronezh region has started and been serving in the prison ministry in the Maximum security federal penitentiary institution FBU IK-1 in the town of Semiluki (since 2001 until now). We have successfully created a vital and vibrant protestant Bible study group for the prisoners. Our unique prison ministry is led in two directions – religious and social programs.
It’s been very practical and useful to hear the story of the ministry in Bulgaria UMC.
Journey to another world
It was in 1997, in the middle of July, when a Christian friend asked him: «Would you come with me in a place you don’t know?» Stoyan Stalev, who could already look back to a life with many ups and downs and who had assumed responsibility for an East Bulgarian congregation almost exclusively consisting of Roma people one year ago, said yes. He could not know that he would regret this decision very soon. Because this unknown place was a prison, and when he first visited it, he was shocked. There were people with tattoos everywhere on their bodies. They were so rude! Everyone came and wanted to shake hands with him, but they stayed so close to him and smiled with their toothless mouths: the whole picture was frightening! It was as if sin had left on them not only spiritual but physical scars.
The only thing Stoyan Stalev could say was: «I am glad to be here with you.» Everybody laughed and he wanted to run out immediately. When he was at home, he thought to himself: «There are so many sinners in that place who need to hear the Good news.» This insight changed his mind – and became a starting point of a unique ministry. It is a ministry through which hope is brought to places where there is none – and through which love finds an expression among people, which are not regarded to be worthy of being loved.
Together with other Christians he continued visiting prisons – both in Razdelna and in Varna. Life in these institutions is difficult – they are overcrowded, sanitary facilities are lacking, communication with the world outside of the prison is heavily restricted or almost completely forbidden, and there is hardly any assistance for those with psychic pain. In the beginning of his ministry, the visits in the prisons were like visits to foreign lands, with different rules and culture. But Stoyan Stalev knew that he had to understand in order to help these people. And he decided to do everything possible to reach their hearts.
Stoyan Stalev’s visits bring joy to the prisoners because they can see that there is somebody who cares for them, who wants to talk to them, to listen to them, to give them advices. «Through us they can feel God’s love. They feel encouraged. Some of the prisoners don’t have parents; some of them are abandoned after getting to prison. For those people I am a brother, a friend, a father. It is a blessing for me to speak about Christ and the salvation He gives to everybody; to pray with the prisoners; to discover the Bible with them, and to celebrate Holy Communion.» Stoyan Stalev does not only take care of them; he also serves as a link between them and their relatives.
Over and over it becomes visible how God touches the hard and cruel hearts of these prisoners. They repent for their sins and commit their lives to God. It is a real joy for Stoyan Stalev to meet some of them on the street and see that they have families and go to church. This is an encouragement to remain faithful to his calling in spite of the disappointments and failures.
His desire is to win more people who are willing to get involved in the prison ministry – and to continue helping the former prisoners to be socialized.
Information by Bulgaria and Romania AC UMC
Pastor Stoyan Stalev