Ross Gabrielsen travels to prisons to spread the Gospel and play softball with convicts.
Beret Leone | The Clarion
Twisting his baseball cap around and strolling into the prison yard, Bethel University senior Ross
Gabrielsen casually chats with a group of New Jersey inmates. He just finished playing two games of softball against a group of male prisoners. He’s familiar with them and they’ve shared laughs and testimony.
Saints Prison Ministry is a New Jersey-based ministry that focuses on sharing the Gospel with prisoners. For a week at a time, Saint Prison Ministries reaches out to the incarcerated, visiting two to three prisons a day. Volunteers spend their days playing sports with and ministering to inmates. Statistically, prisoners are much more likely to attend a sporting event than a worship service.
“If you’re going to a prison and saying ‘come to our worship service!’ I don’t know how many inmates are going to show up,” Gabrielsen said. “But if you hear, ‘Hey people are coming into our prison to play softball against the teams,’ I think that’s a bigger draw.”
Volunteering for Saints Prison Ministry runs in the family for Gabrielsen. He was recruited as a sports volunteer at 18, following in his older brother and cousin’s footsteps. It’s been two years since his first game with the ministry. Gabrielsen plans on continuing after graduation.
“I just love going in and talking to some of them and hearing their stories,” Gabrielsen said. “Not only us encouraging them, but them encouraging us.”
“I just love going in and talking to some of them and hearing their stories. Not only us encouraging them, but them encouraging us.”
Gabrielsen and other volunteers spend week-long trips traveling around the state of New Jersey, visiting various prisons to play softball against recreational prison teams.
They call themselves the Saints.
Five days a week, the Saints play two to three games of softball or basketball at two separate prisons a day, spending three to four hours at each prison. Between plays and stretching, the volunteers and the inmates chat casually, getting to know each other as people instead of as competitors. During each half-time, a testimony from one of the Saints players is shared, along with a message.
Before parting ways, pamphlets are handed out asking inmates about their religious stance after their experience. Inmates can check either, “I accepted Christ today,” “I have not accepted Christ,” or “I’m already a believer.” On average per prison, anywhere from four to ten prisoners accept Christ into their life every day.
Since limited time is spent at each prison, Gabrielsen hasn’t had a chance to keep in contact with any inmates, but he hopes that his time there is meaningful. Handfuls of letters of are sent to Saints Prison Ministry with gratitude spilling from scribbled handwriting.
“They love having us. It’s something that they remember for a very long time. When you’re in prison every day it’s pretty much exactly the same. There’s no switch up,” Gabrielsen said. “It’s something that they remember like it was yesterday for a very long time.”
Sometimes it doesn’t always work out as planned and the team is unable to go the prison. Weather often gets in the way. Typically when weather is bad, the Saints still head over to the prison and instead play indoor basketball. There was a time that there was a stabbing so the Saints weren’t allowed into the prisons, period.
One especially rainy day, Gabrielsen and his team knew there was no way they’d be able to play outside with the inmates. Instead of indoor basketball, they attended a chapel service in the prison. Inmates led the Saints in worship, followed by a message from a Saint volunteer. The time that they would have spent playing sports was spent worshiping together.
“When you’re on the trip, it’s something that you are constantly thinking about,” Gabrielsen said. “What if my life was like that, what if something happened where I’d have to be in prison? You just be thankful for what you have. Thankful for your friends. Thankful for not being locked up. It’s pretty powerful for when you are on the trip, even after too.”
Besides volunteering with athletics, Saints Prison Ministry encourages other volunteer contributions such as a bulk mailing assistant, financial support or a pen pal.
TO GET INVOLVED VISIT: saintsprisonministry.org/get-involved/volunteer