"Hey Dallas!* What are you up to?" A friendly shout comes from across the sandy prison yard.
"We're getting ready to have Bible study. It's for people who are new to learning about God," Dallas replies with confidence as we briskly walk to the B Yard Chapel together. He turns to us. "I just want to tell people about Jesus. Can you believe this is happening guys?"
Months of jumping through bureaucratic red tape has led to this moment, the first day Dallas will be leading the Stories of Hope Bible study face-to-face. After completing a Bible study series with us by mail (a pen-pal Discovery Bible Study!), Dallas envisioned hosting this type of program in person on his yard. This was something we had dreamed about as well and it seemed like the Lord was selecting the leader.
While going through months of securing the permissions needed to launch this program, there were moments when we questioned our discernment about Dallas being the leader. Yes, he was better positioned to relate to the men and to catalyze a movement of new disciples in prison than us. After all, he lived in close proximity with the others and shared their daily struggles. Yet, we soon became concerned that Dallas’s idea of a leader was focused on giving commands and promoting himself, as he had learned from his involvement in gangs. He had no exposure to examples of Jesus’s leadership style—sacrificing oneself freely to serve others and to follow God’s will, relinquishing power rather than grasping for it.
In response to this, we began conducting some leadership development Bible studies with Dallas by mail, praying that we would all grow in humility in the process. As we studied how Jesus led with Dallas, and demonstrated the principles by passing off leadership to him, we began to see a shift. “I am going to facilitate," Dallas explained one day to some interested potential participants, "but everyone will get a chance to lead and share." Several men nodded, "We don't usually get programs like that."
Dallas was changing from seeing himself as an inmate and criminal to a godly leader. The following quote, comprised of excerpts from our letters with Dallas, illustrates this:
“It means so much to me that you guys believe in me, and I am honored to lead this Bible study group ... People said I was hopeless and wouldn’t make it, especially after losing my little two year old brother, then at age 13 being shot and almost killed, I kind of believe what everyone was saying. After, I got locked up at age 17 ... I must say that everything is coming full circle [now]. I’m becoming a real man. For a long time my mind was childish and I really didn’t take things that seriously but now I’m really liking who I’m becoming ... I like this leadership thing. It gets the ball rolling to put myself out there to be more like Jesus.”
As Dallas was learning these lessons about godly leadership, we witnessed a Bible study in which Dallas guided Edgar* through asking the Discovery Bible Study questions for the first time, gently creating space for another leader to emerge. With each question, the men connected the passage to their daily life. The study concluded with everyone sharing an action step, a small way that they too could humbly step into a leadership role in their own networks:
"I'll talk to my cell-y about the Bible story."
"I'm going to read it with my wife. She's having a really hard time with our son."
"Maybe we can even ask them these same questions."
Now, over a year later, Dallas continues to step into his identity as a godly leader. He is over a year sober from drugs and alcohol, and his transformation has piqued the interest of others on the yard, with new inmates joining the group because they can see God moving in Dallas’s life. By picking this unlikely leader, instead of leading the study ourselves, God is creating inroads for more men who are spiritually hungry to encounter him. By allowing Dallas the space to grow and modeling servant leadership to him, he is now in a position where he is building up others to become godly leaders too.
REFLECT AND RESPOND
In Matthew 25:36, Jesus states: “I was in prison and you came to me.” In our visits to prison, we are often moved by how Jesus shows himself to us and teaches us through our friends who live behind bars. How have you seen Jesus among people you have sought to serve or in those who are marginalized by society? What have you learned from these individuals and how might you follow their lead?
Some might have disqualified Dallas’s potential as a leader because of his status as an inmate. Yet, throughout the Bible we see God raising up leaders in unlikely places, just like Dallas, and using the very things that might disqualify them in the eyes of the world to glorify himself. No matter who you are, what life stage you are in, or what you have done or not done, God has uniquely equipped you for his Kingdom purposes in your community. We invite you to silence the voice of the enemy and take a few moments in quiet prayer asking God the following:
What have I used to disqualify myself from leading or sharing your love in my community?
How are you inviting me to hold these things in a posture of surrender?
How might you use these parts of my story for your glory?
*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of our friends.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda and Nathan Flickner have had the joy of walking with recent immigrant families in Los Angeles’s Westlake/MacArthur Park neighborhood with InnerCHANGE LA since 2015. After realizing that several neighbors had loved ones who were incarcerated, and inspired by the ways God has been moving in prisons throughout Novo, they began visiting and facilitating Bible studies at the local prison in 2016.