What I learned as a World Impact intern

For his final assignment as an intern with World Impact, Tabor College graduate Toby Penner went into the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to conduct interviews with incarcerated Church-Based Seminary students. Read below about how God worked in Toby’s heart while behind prison walls.

(from left) Pastor Charles Anderson, Toby Penner, World Impact Prison Ministry director Rich Esselstrom, Dr. Robin LaBarbera, and World Impact Church-Based Seminary staff member Gustavo Delgado

I have heard many times while following Jesus that no one is “too far gone” for the Holy Spirit to convict them of sin and start a process of renewal and redemption in their life. For most of my life, I would have claimed that I believed this.

However, I don’t think I truly believed it in my heart, because at various times I have given up on someone I labeled “irredeemable.” Looking back, I can see myself becoming the jury and judge of someone’s mistakes in life, with no knowledge of their story. I passed blame to the person in question or someone close to them who “didn’t do their job.”

Then I went to three Texas state prison units and interviewed 21 current and former inmates.

"I was your age when I was given a life sentence," Jesse, a TUMI student and chaplain's assistant, tells Toby.
Toby interviewing Jesse in the chaplain's office.

For the first time in my life, I heard firsthand the complexity of the inmates’ stories in their own words and on their own terms. I heard the regret they expressed when recounting the decisions that led them to their prison sentence. I heard the pain of losing precious time with wives and children.

But I also heard the voices of men who knew their position before our Creator. They were confident that even though they had sinned against God in many ways, they are covered by the blood of Jesus and have reason to rejoice in their justification. They now have hope that one day they will stand with a great multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language praising the God of Heaven.

This kind of transformation is unheard of in the natural world. Because it is so rare, the secular societies of this world don’t anticipate it—and most individuals don’t believe it is possible.

I am here to say that it is entirely possible and that it is happening in our prisons. Pastor Charles Anderson of Epiphany Life Change, an organization working to aid returning citizens, teaches World Impact’s Church-Based Seminary courses in multiple prison units through World Impact’s Prison Ministry. He testifies that many prisoners are turning to Christ through the help of ministry workers and the Church-Based Seminary curriculum. I consider it a great honor to have seen a glimpse of this movement of God in prisons.

Toby interviewing "Big Mike" in the theological library at the Ramsey Unit.

A few amazing things occurred on this trip. First, I went into units where I’d never been, in a city and state where I’d never lived, and interviewed inmates whom I had never met—all without a hint of opposition from any prison official. I was one-on-one with the inmates without a chaplain, guard, or warden in the room. I learned from one inmate that this is incredibly rare and that during previous interviews, the warden stood off-camera making sure his answers reflected positively on the prison.

Second, I—a 22-year-old Kansas farm kid who attended a Christian school, didn’t party in college, and hasn’t even seen cocaine or meth in person—sat just feet away from men who committed capital murder, aggravated robbery, drug dealing, and sex crimes, among other offenses. “Common sense” (and even people who care about me) would have warned me to keep a safe distance from the offenders just in case something happened. However, instead of highlighting our differences, our conversations and proximity cemented our identities as brothers in Christ, co-heirs with Christ, co-laborers for the Kingdom, and fellow worshipers of our Creator.

Third, I met people whose stories many of us would, outside of Christ, label as bizarre or even fake.

Jason joined the Aryan Brotherhood in prison and quickly rose to a position of power. After finding Jesus, however, he walked away from the gang and white supremacy. He now co-teaches the Church-Based Seminary class in his unit with Jackie, a Black brother in Christ.

Chayanne boldly offered his compelling story of attempting suicide multiple times in his cell before randomly hearing someone on the radio offer the hope of Jesus. He has gone from starting riots and attempting to end his own life to playing drums for the prison worship band each Sunday morning.

Cameron grew up in the LDS church. He then rejected the church altogether and ended up in prison where he started a new spiritual journey. He came to Christ in prison after cycling through the entire spectrum of worldviews, including atheism, agnosticism, and deism.

Chayanne, C.T. Terrell Unit
Jackie, Stringfellow Unit
Jason, Stringfellow Unit
Cameron, Stringfellow Unit

Between the many wild stories that I heard and the amazing connections with the inmates that I had, I came to realize a few truths in deeper ways than I ever had before. The list is long, but here are three.

First, I realized in a deeper way that no matter what we do, Christ died for our sins, and we bear His image for our entire lives. No crime, regardless of nature or intensity, can subdue the power of Christ’s atoning blood, and no decision we make can alter our image-bearing identity.

Second, I comprehended God’s sovereignty a touch more. God can use any channel to reach any person in any given situation. God used a radio to save Chayanne from suicide in a segregated cell. God used Cameron’s intellectual quest to capture his heart from the hopelessness of both legalism and atheism. God’s saving power knows no bounds or limits. We can try to run from Him, but He is always waiting right behind us wishing for us to turn from our harmful ways.

Finally, I relearned that God’s love and transformation is the most important thing to have in common with someone else. Even if we have different backgrounds, enjoy different hobbies, or prefer different music, we as believers have the most important thing in common: When God looks at all of us, He sees Christ, and we share an identity as Christ’s beautiful and blameless Bride.