I have always been passionate about sharing the gospel and helping people who have never heard about Jesus to become His followers. I even planned to carry out Jesus’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:18–20) as a missionary in a faraway land.
My dream was to travel to the deepest jungles of Central America and live in a hut complete with anacondas hanging from the ceiling. The Lord seemed to confirm this plan when He sent me a beautiful wife who shared my passion for mission work. She was even on board with hut-dwelling. I imagined us going to unreached people groups. I would translate the Bible, she would teach, and we would live happily ever after, serving the Lord.
Sounds like a fantastic plan, right? We thought so, too, but God had other plans for us first (Proverbs 19:21). After our wedding, Kathy joined me in Topeka, Kansas, where I had begun pastoring a church.
God, in His wisdom, postponed our desire to serve Him overseas. We still knew we’d get there someday, but not yet. God placed us in Kansas because He knew we needed a little experience under our young belts and a good sending church before we sailed off to the other side of the world.
After five long years, the Lord finally gave us the desire of our hearts. He and our church in Kansas sent us to Taiwan. It would be our home for the next twenty years. We learned to speak Chinese and planted a church. It was a challenging task, but God helped us.
It was another five years before a single person responded to the Good News, but when they did, God moved mightily. Kathy and I were amazed at how the Lord melted the hearts of people who had been so far from believing in Him. Lives all around us were transformed. The Lord used those precious people to teach us how to live and love like Jesus.
In 2006, we felt the Lord leading us back to the United States, and I settled into a new position as the teaching and missions pastor at First Christian Church (FCC) in Phoenix, Arizona. I would need everything I had learned in Taiwan, as God was about to do a new thing in our congregation (Isaiah 43:19). And He would use formerly incarcerated people to do it.
Ministering to former inmates was the one thing that had not made it into my busy schedule. Yes, I had known ex-offenders over the years and had heard their powerful redemption stories. I’d even visited the county jail with my brother who is a police chaplain and student pastor.
I admired my brother’s work and his special relationship with former gangsters, but I’d never imagined myself in that role. Nor had I ever been in a Christian community with a significant constituency of ex-cons. That was about to change, however, after an unexpected visit from two men—Collis, the founder and director of Alongside Ministries (ASM), and Austin, the men’s director there.
ASM is a dynamic local prison ministry that matches men and women behind bars with Christian mentors before they are released and provides residential discipleship training for nine more months after their release from prison.
Collis and Austin had discovered a missing piece to the intricate puzzle of rehabilitation and reentry, and they were on a mission to put this piece in place within their ministry. That’s what brought them through FCC’s doors.
They wanted a church home for the men and women in their program and all future ASM programmers. They met with me and my coworker, Jon, to discuss their idea.
“Pastor Chuck,” Collis began, “our men and women need to experience what it means to be part of a church family. We’ve hopped around Sunday after Sunday, visiting various congregations that support our ministry. We need to find a church home so our men and women can experience life in the body of Christ.
“We recently polled our folks to find out where they would want to settle down, and it was unanimous. They like the biblical focus of FCC’s teaching and always feel welcomed. So what do you think? Can we make this our home?”
I was glad the men and women had chosen FCC over all the other churches in town, but I was also wary of an influx of ex-cons into our membership. How would our people react? Then I remembered the heart of God for this group of people.
There was no question about what He’d have us do. He loves formerly incarcerated people the same as He does anyone else. His love had redeemed them from a deep, dark pit. How could we as a body of believers refuse them a place in God’s family?
So there was only one answer. We would love like Jesus, no matter how messy or uncomfortable it got.
Jon and I had no idea the massive evolution our church was about to undergo, but we sensed God was orchestrating something big. Our part in His plan was to say yes to the opportunity and trust God with the results. We could do that.
But then, Collis presented another request that caught us a bit off-guard. “Guys,” he said, “not only do our men and women want to attend the main service, but they want to spend their entire Sunday mornings at FCC. Is there a class they could join?”
I began to sweat a little.
We offered small groups through the week at FCC and around the city but had eliminated our Sunday classes. Well, except for one attended by the congregation’s most senior crowd.
Faithful grandmas and grandpas who had led our church through challenging brush fires and storms comprised this class. Still, we weren’t sure they would be excited about 30 formerly incarcerated men and women descending upon their classroom. I wasn’t sure they could handle the culture shock.
We informed Collis and Austin that we would check with our church elders and get back to them.
We met with three of the church’s patriarchs and recounted our meeting with Collis and Austin. I smiled as I spoke, hoping to soften the impact of the news that FCC would now be the home church of a community of former inmates. Then I dropped the big news: “And they want to join your Sunday School class!”
I held my breath, expecting a negative response, but the men simply said they would ask the class. The following Sunday, after their group met, the men said, “The class thinks it sounds like something Jesus would want us to do.” I’d never been prouder to be their pastor.
It’s been 12 years since that first group of pierced and tattooed wonders descended on the Kingdom Seekers Sunday School class. I have to smile when I think back to that first Sunday. I can still hear Glen’s voice (one of those elders) calling me.
“Chuck, come quick. You have to see what’s happened to our class!” At first, I didn’t know how to respond, but then his face broke into a bright smile. “These people have doubled our attendance and reduced our average age by one-third!”
That day was a happy, pivotal moment, both in the life of First Christian Church and in those of the men and women who desperately needed to experience the love of a family. We’ve all been changed for the better.
Austin soon persuaded me to accompany him into the men’s prison in Florence, Arizona. I was apprehensive, but my fear dissipated when those men welcomed me into their family. I have been a religious volunteer for the Arizona Department of Corrections ever since. Now I do what I used to watch my little brother do—teach men about Jesus and the Word of God in prison. Talk about a foreign mission field! The irony in the way God works makes me chuckle.
Some people have difficulty believing there’s a church who will love them like a family and help them reenter society. Many respond with, “Yeah, right. No church will want someone like me around.”
But after they come, I usually hear, “I’ve never felt loved and accepted like this.” That makes my day like nothing else. These folks don’t realize what it means to us to be loved and accepted by them.
On any given Sunday, I can look into the congregation and see the faces of people I have met in prison. It has been a privilege to continue to teach and disciple them; many have become close friends. Sometimes, they teach me how to follow Jesus and reflect Him in our broken world.
God is moving powerfully from the inside out. Who knew He could use transformed men and women from the inside to bring transformation to people on the outside? I’m glad to have a front-row seat.
God refashioned what was once a very traditional, upper-middle-class church into a diverse community where incredible stories of redemption abound and where people from every tribe, tongue, and nation live in harmony, worshipping their Savior together.
It’s a beautiful sight—and I imagine heaven will be much like it.
You know, not everyone appreciated our saying yes to God and welcoming these folks. Love and grace are messy. Many people left our church because they didn’t want to sit next to an ex-con.
But that’s okay. Life isn’t about making everyone comfortable; it’s about obeying the Lord. It’s about loving others and welcoming them into God’s family. It’s about moving over and making room for people who are different from us.
Making disciples is a journey of ongoing healing and growth. It’s deliberate, intentional, and often challenging. Is it easy? No. It requires God’s wisdom and strength and patience (Philippians 4:13). But it’s worth the effort.
And in the process, you’ll grow. You’ll make new friends. And you’ll experience God doing something incredible in and through you.
Don’t miss it! Open the door. Scoot over and make room for others today.
CHUCK FOREMAN and his wife, Kathy, have established deep roots at First Christian Church of Phoenix, Arizona, a church known for humbly serving its community. In addition to being proud parents and grandparents, Chuck and Kathy consider dozens of men and women as part of their beloved family of disciples.