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Prison ministries help inmates find freedom behind bars

Health problems have slowed Gene Rial down over the years, but his table outside the Grass Valley Kmart – where he sells Christian books and CDs several days each month – testify to his still-robust drive to serve the imprisoned.

The booth helps Rial, 75, raise funds to place Bibles in jails, prisons and juvenile halls around the area through his ministry, Prisoners for Christ.

Most are places he visited and where he held Bible studies since he first felt a calling to prisons in the mid-1970s.



He’ll tell you it’s not easy – he sees plenty of “jailhouse conversions.”

“Some of them can play the role and fake it out,” Rial said. “Some come to the Bible study just to get out of the cell.”




But for Rial, the people who sincerely turn their lives toward the better makes his efforts worth the work.

Rial is one among many clergy and lay people working in regional jails and prisons, and it shows in the full schedule of activities at the Wayne Brown Correctional Facility, Nevada County’s jail in Nevada City.

In addition to programs provided by the county’s adult education division and visits from a barber, inmates can visit with a handful of church groups that stop by throughout the week.

One is Twin Cities Church, which sends volunteers from its 16-member jail ministry team to WBCF on weekends.

They record video of Sunday services, then edit them, put them on a DVD and bring them to the jail the following Sunday.

“It’s a nice connection, so people feel they get to know pastors and the church,” said Twin Cities Associate Pastor John Fairchild. When they get out, “they know what they’re getting into” if they come to the church, he said.

The visits can attract anywhere between two and twenty inmates. What keeps volunteers enthusiastic about it is “the impact and the results that came out of it through positive relationships, through life change,” Fairchild said.

Some inmates have started attending the church regularly after their release.

“Prison ministry is a challenging ministry,” Rial said. Sometimes it means getting burned.

But he’s learned not to judge the people he works with, he said. While his father was a pastor and he grew up attending church, he strayed away as an adult. He’s been through divorce and slipped into a lifestyle of drinking and partying before finally returning to his “calling.”

When he gets disillusioned, he said, he asks himself, “Did God give up on you? Don’t give up. Just keep going.”

Judging from the letters he gets from inmates and former inmates with whom he’s built friendships, lives change.

One man, who is serving the last year of an eight-year sentence in a Susanville state prison for assault, wrote out his life story. Rial figures prominently during the dark years behind bars, bringing him literature and Bible studies.

“I still have struggles, but I know I can overcome them with my faith in Jesus,” he said. “I know I can have a successful life outside of prison.”

He credits Rial with teaching him a new way of life.

“I don’t believe I would be half this far without him,” he wrote.

To contact Staff Writer Michelle Rindels, e-mail mrindels@theunion.com or call (530) 477-4247.


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