Prison. It is one of the most desperate and hopeless places in the world. But, through the Willow Creek Prison and Jail Ministry, along with the Prison Pack initiative, hope is beginning to emerge behind bars.
“I follow God’s son, Jesus Christ, who was blindingly clear about how I should engage with prisoners,” says Bill Hybels. “If I had passed away at 55 despite all that clear training and additionally because I’m a pastor, I would’ve had to explain to God that I didn’t pray for prisoners, that I had never visited one, I had never lifted a finger to help prisoners in any way.” This prompting inspired Hybels to think of new ways to bring hope and show God’s love to those society has largely forgotten.
“We think if Jesus was here walking on the planet today, that he’d be hanging out at Cook County Jail,” says Tom Horton. Tom and his wife Wendy have served in prison ministry for over 14 years. They spend over 10.5 hours a week leading Bible studies at Cook County Jail, a correctional facility that houses over 9,000 inmates. “People in jail matter to God. And just because they are out of sight and out of mind, doesn’t mean they matter any less to God.” Tom says.
“Llujah," which is shorthand for “hallelujah," is something Tom routinely shouts through the halls and cell blocks of Cook County Jail. Over time, this mantra has begun to echo back from the inmates as he walks through the cell blocks. It is the sound of hope ringing through the halls of what seemed like a hopeless place.
Besides the prison and jail ministry, Willow launched a Christmas outreach called “Prison Pack” to let their brothers and sisters behind bars know just how much they are loved and to reassure them that they are not forgotten. Prison Pack has now reached its fourth year running as part of an entire weekend experience throughout Willow Creek, and all of its regional campuses. During Prison Pack weekend, every person who comes through the doors at Willow Creek participate in packing Christmas gifts for prisoners in the state of Illinois. Each inmate receives a care package with a Christmas card, Bible study and journal, an activity book, pretzels, honey buns, brownies and candy bars. This year alone over 71,500 packs were made for every single prisoner in an Illinois correctional facility and prisoners at Angola Prison in Angola, LA.
“Being locked up, that was real rough. And then I got a gift from someone I didn’t know. It was amazing,” says Ezra, a former recipient of one of the prison packs. Ezra was in attendance in South Barrington this year to help pack Christmas gifts for inmates like the ones he used to himself receive. “Being here now… to be free is amazing. It’s nice because Tom and the team showed love to us.”
“They’ve really never had anybody that cared about them,” says Tom. “But once they understand that you do care about them, that you do love them and if we do, how much more the Father loves them.”
Remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison. – Hebrews 13:3