By J. Michael Broyles
About five years ago, the Returning Hearts Celebration ministry was born in an unlikely place called Angola Prison in Louisiana. In the 1960’s, Angola was called the “bloodiest prison in America.” Make no mistake; these men had done bad things in society and in their families.
Returning Hearts is a new ministry of reconciliation between inmate fathers and their children. Our prisons are full of men who have broken relationships and for many, no relationship at all. Most of these men experienced poor examples of fatherhood. Some had no relationship with their father. The fact is, most of the men in jail parent the same way they were parented.
Awana Clubs International partnered with Angola Prison to create Returning Hearts Celebration (RHC), a ministry between inmate fathers and their children. The Celebration would include a day of fun, games, food and time to enjoy each other in a safe environment. Awana encouraged volunteers from all over America to come to Angola to be trained to chaperone and shadow the prisoners and their kids for a day in a prison. For about five hours on the day of the event, dads, kids and volunteers have an opportunity to enjoy a fun-filled day with time for singing and hearing the gospel of Christ.
The principle goal of RHC is to teach fathers to be the spiritual leaders of their children. This begins with the inmates establishing a right relationship with the Lord, personally, then with their children. RHC leaders come to Angola Prison and teach the inmates to seek healing, hope and forgiveness for the past hurts their actions inflicted on their children. The dads are taught how to share the gospel wheel with their children during the “alone-time” they will have with their kids, which is an amazing and powerful time. The result has been that many of the fathers lead their children to the life-changing experience of following Jesus Christ. The children repeatedly tell the volunteers, “This is best day of my life.”
As we experience in our churches the brokenness of families, the prison family experience is even more intense. If a father is in prison in the United States today, his children are seven times more likely to also end up in prison. Thus, it is the objective of RHC to break the cycle of generational violence that leads to prison.
Another aspect of RHC is the Guardian Program. As the dads and kids have a special day of fun and healing, guardians of the children (mothers, grandmothers, aunties) spend the day being pampered by volunteers and are encouraged and counseled on how to parent the child of an incarcerated father. These women have a great challenge and responsibility. The RHC Guardian volunteers try to make the women feel special and valued while also communicating God’s grace and hope in their lives.
RHC is a family ministry. Many of us feel that it is the best mission opportunity in the U.S. today. Fathers learn to lead their kids toward Christ and forgiveness. The training and experience for the volunteers positively impacts them as they discover the value of better care for and time with their own children or grandchildren. The general consensus of the RHC volunteer is, “This was the most powerful, meaningful experience of my life!” The inmate fathers and their kids grow closer to each other and Christ, which influences the volunteers who are learning through observation and the example of the prisoners.
In the next e-newsletter article, I will share the story of our own local church’s experience with RHC here in California and how your church might begin thinking and praying about how you can start this family ministry in your area. RHC is becoming a national movement, with 16 prisons and jails scheduled to offer the RHC program. For more information, go to:awana.org and search under “prison ministry.” Another resource about Angola Prison is: Cain’s Redemption, by Dennis Shere.
For the past twenty years, Mike Broyles has served Grace Baptist Church in Santa Clarita, California, as Executive Pastor, Christian Education Pastor and Family Life Pastor. He is blessed with a wonderful wife of 36 years (Debbie). They have two sons and daughters-in-law, Jon and Jocelyn, and Dan and Carli. They also have four grandchildren.