NorthEast of the Well Recap: Softball at Centinela Prison
A big thank you to Jon Lowry and Serving California for the opportunity and access to such an experience. Two of our staff members were able to take a road trip to Centinela State Prison in Imperial, CA to play softball with the inmates. Laura Suk (Executive Director) and Sarah Howard (Administration/Area Coordinator) represented our NorthEast “athletes”, and the experience was eye-opening, educational and encouraging for both. A large majority of the population we serve at NorthEast comes out of incarceration, and it was so valuable to have this up-close and personal experience. We were reminded again that ministry comes in all forms, and we’re thankful for this one!
Truth be told, two of my favorite things in life are Jesus and baseball. When this opportunity arose at a recent Serving California conference, my hand shot up to volunteer. I was signed up to visit Centinela State Prison on June 2 – to play softball with the inmates!
Centinela is located in San Diego County and is a maximum security prison (Level 3), where most inmates are serving long-term to life sentences. Our experience there turned out to be a highlight of the year for me.
On the car ride from our hotel in El Centro to the prison entrance Sarah and I read Luke 10 together: “…and Jesus sent out the 72 by 2.” There we were, the two of us, heading in to an unexpected place and situation to represent Christ. We prayed the Lord would use us and we would not forget to speak boldly and lovingly that the Kingdom of God is near.
Through our conversations with inmates that morning, we could sense many were hungry for the truth – and simply for engagement with others. The ministry of presence was what we brought. Psalm 91 was a scripture I shared, and encouraged them to read again later on their own.
It was a whopping 107 degrees that day and large containers of cold water were provided, giving us yet another way to serve the men and engage in individual conversations.
One of the most memorable moments – that has continued to impact me – was this one: I took my place in the 3rd inning to play right field, and heard one of the men call to another on the sidelines: “HEY, GIVE LAURA SOME BACK UP!” Immediately one of the inmates came out and stood near me (now we have 10 on the 9 man field) – he was there to simply support me. No drama or offense involved, just some needed support! I felt they took care of me. Oh, how the scripture rings true that God will send his angel army in for “backup” – as well as the promise that we will be blessed more than expected when we give.
I think also of Ephesians 3:20-21: “And now to HIM who is able to give us immeasurable more than we can ask or imagine according to His power … “ – I was blessed immeasurably more by receiving this invitation. Thank you … and count me/us at NorthEast of the Well in for next time!
This day was a blessing and something I won’t ever forget. I’ve done jail time myself, so it was pretty amazing to be on the other side of things: this time, I was the one coming to minister to the inmates.
We arrived at the prison carrying our ID, softball gloves and our Bible – a great combination. We met up with Jon and his team and entered through the series of doors, locks, and chain link fences. The inmates met us out on the yard. Right away one of the guys included me in the warm-ups, and I immediately felt a part of and comfortable. Everyone, including us, was excited to PLAY BALL!
In conversing with the inmates, I was blown away by some of the time they had served: two of them had first entered at 17 and 18 years old, and were now 37 and 50! It was a surreal moment, and hard to wrap my head around. They had clearly adjusted to their surroundings and this was their life; it looked like they were making the best out of what they had.
One of the men that had been there over 20 years told us it was the first time they played with teams of mixed race. Normally, they played race against race. It might seem odd to us – but it was normal in their world behind bars.
I got to pitch for the last two innings and they all cheered me on. It made me feel good! Every person I encountered was respectful and kind.
What a wonderful opportunity to be relational with an otherwise inaccessible group of people, and “on their turf” – I can’t wait to go back! This experience expanded my outlook on life and showed me what God is doing in ALL sorts of places.