Student-led ministry meets with prisoners at pivotal moment in their lives

Prisoner with a Bible in lap

In a non-descript room on a Thursday evening, a group of people gather to read scripture and sing worship songs. A few hands are raised; voices join in praise. But this is no ordinary bible study. Behind the walls of the Fraser Regional Correctional Centre (FRCC), Trinity Western University business major Adam Wowchuk (’16) and the Go Prison Mission men’s team engage with those many in our society consider to be the least.

On any given day in British Columbia, there are 24,000 or more people who make up the supervised population in the province’s corrections system. The vast majority of provincially sentenced criminals—nearly 90 percent—live in communities overseen by probation officers throughout the province. The remaining 10 percent, just over 2400, are inmates in one of nine provincial correctional centres—including FRCC, and the maximum-security Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW). It is at these institutions that Wowchuk and psychology major Kaylie Arsenault (‘17) lead two separate teams who serve these inmate populations on a weekly basis. 

A SEED PLANTED

Prison ministry wasn’t on Wowchuk’s radar when, as a first year student, he walked past the then-God’s Own Prison Ministry booth at TWU’s annual Missions Expo. “A gentleman representing the ministry prophesied over me as I passed by,” he remembers. “He said, ‘God has given you the ability to articulate biblical truth. You aren’t using it and you need to start using it.’ And I was like, ‘What? Who are you?’”

But Wowchuk recognized the need and, along with 15 other students who showed interest but ended up not being able to make the commitment. After a short period of time Wowchuk was the sole volunteer from TWU. “The more time I spent there,” he says, “the more I began to embrace it as something I wanted to do long term.” By his second year, he was leading the ministry, which now operates as Go Prison Mission under the umbrella of Trinity Western Student Ministries.

Soon, his passion for the ministry began to draw more students—among them Arsenault, now in her third year at TWU. While Wowchuk may not have been initially drawn to prison ministry, for Arsenault it was an obvious choice. Her grandparents were missionaries and because of their example, she says, her heart goes out to the underdogs, the people who often aren’t seen or heard in society.

“Being part of this ministry has turned my whole perspective on who a prisoner actually is,” says Arsenault, who now serves as a co-leader with Go Prison Mission. “I’ve learned that prisons can be places for people to be put on hold for a time, away from the temptations and distractions of life. It’s a beautiful opportunity where we get to reach in and walk with them. Behind the bars, God moves freely and radically, showing them truth and life and we merely watch and create space for the transformation”

A GOD APPOINTMENT

At 63 years old, Aaron Miller (not his actual name) found himself at a crossroads. “I broke God’s law and man’s law,” says the former preacher-turned-businessman, who identifies himself as a Messianic Jew. “That’s what put me in prison—rightfully so. I did wrong and I had to pay.”

Born to Jewish parents and raised by a nanny who took him to a Southern Baptist Church every Sunday, the young Miller became a fully ordained minister. He married at 17 and, together with his wife, raised five children. Eventually, he left the ministry for the corporate world. “The Lord gave me an astuteness in business,” he says. “But I took my eyes off of Him.”

In 2013, he was convicted of breach of trust. The judge in his case, who was also Jewish, chose to make an example of him and handed down the stiffest penalty he could: 18 months in jail. “I wrestled with the Lord,” Miller says. “I asked him, ‘What am I doing here?’ Then along came Adam and Kaylie and their crew.”

At first, Miller would just sit and listen, along with the other inmates, to the message the students brought. When he finally spoke up, the team discovered something surprising. “He had this tremendous breadth of wisdom,” says Wowchuk. “He brought a fuller picture of the weight of what Christ accomplished because he was so well-educated in the Old Testament and in the old covenant. It was cool because we would learn from him.”

Not only did they learn from him, but the other inmates did, as well. Throughout the week, Miller supported the ministry team’s work, keeping the inmates engaged between their visits through other teaching opportunities.

“Having Adam and the team there gave me a way to communicate, to talk to someone,” Miller says. “For me, they were God’s secret miracle.”

A SECOND CHANCE

That Wowchuk is where he is today is in itself something of a miracle. Many remember the Romanian orphan crisis, which came to light in 1989 after the fall of former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. The orphans’ plight touched heartstrings the world over as families worldwide sought to rescue these forgotten children. Born to a poor mother who surrendered her one-month-old son, Wowchuk, was one of the last children to be adopted from Romania before the adoption programs were shut down by the new government. “My Canadian parents adopted me when I had nothing to offer and no control over anything, a true act of grace, and a gift from God.”

Growing up in Brandon, MB, Wowchuk showed promise as a hockey player but was sidelined by politics and an injury. He moved to Caronport, SK, where, he says, his faith became his own. From there, he ended up in South Africa at a Youth With a Mission -based bible school where he read the bible cover to cover five times over nine months.

The story of Moses, who was also given up and raised by someone else, resonated and became a favourite. “A lot of my understanding of Christianity, of God’s love for humanity, links back to my adoption story,” Wowchuk says.

During his time in South Africa, he met Dawn Masucci, a graduate of TWU’s MA Lead program, who suggested Trinity Western might be a good fit for him. Little did he know then the ways his own life experiences would influence his future ministry choice.

“My parents saw in me something worth pursuing,” he says. “They gave me a home and a name; they fed and clothed me when I had nothing. Even though I might mess up, I will always be their son. That’s what God’s love is. And that’s the message I want to share with those in the corrections system.”

A CRITICAL NEED

According to chaplain Craig Thomas, having these volunteers in the prisons conveys a sense of worth to the inmates. “When they listen to, and visit with, the inmates, it demonstrates God’s love in a most tangible way,” he says.

And he should know. For the past 18 years, Thomas has served within the provincial system—the last nine of those at FRCC. “Those in the prison system can easily be ignored,” he says. “Society wants them under lock and key, kept away. A lot of people don’t want to deal with inmates but by their presence, Go Prison Mission is saying, ‘We want to shine a light; we want to give people hope.’”

The student team came along at a time when FRCC desperately needed volunteers.In an institution with as many as 500 inmates, Thomas is only able to meet the most critical needs of those in crisis. “The Go Prison Mission team made a huge contribution right off the bat,” he says.

While most inmates recognize they have made mistakes, they often don’t know how to move on from that. “Some inmates have never had anyone pray for them in their lives,” says Thomas. “They’ve never had contact with anyone who is a Christian. For those who are spiritually hungry, it’s a huge moment in their lives.”

Although BC’s custodial population is overwhelmingly male—about 93 per cent—one institution, Alouette Correctional Centre for Women (ACCW), is dedicated to women. Having established a successful model at FRCC, the team expanded their ministry to ACCW under Arsenault’s leadership.

“Ministering to women is so different than ministering to men,” Arsenault says. “They’ll open up and give you everything, and talk and talk until you leave.” She has witnessed non-Christian women join with her team and call out to Jesus in prayer for the healing of a fellow inmate who was slated for heart surgery—a woman whom Arsenault later led to the Lord.

“For inmates, this ministry is a reality check that there’s something better than what’s here,” Miller says. “They are helping people break the cycle.”

A CHALLENGE TO THE CHURCH

One of the biggest challenges for inmates—especially those who are new in their faith—is what happens once they’re released.

Both Thomas and Miller agree: there’s a real opportunity for the Church to step up. “They say it takes a village to raise a child,” Miller says. “Well, it takes a church to raise a Christian. Because when these guys come out, they’re babies in Christ. The Church needs to come alongside and help raise them into mature Christians.”

Part of Wowchuk’s long-term goals for Go Prison Mission is to partner with churches to get more volunteers into the prison system. Over the next year, he plans to recruit people from local churches and help them develop the program within their own congregations, serving as a liaison. Eventually, he’d like to see Go Prison Mission expand into all nine of the provincial prisons.

“My heart isn’t just for the inmates,” Wowchuk says. “My heart is for the volunteers and team members because I’ve experienced such profound growth in my own faith. We just want to build bridges and get people access.”

AN EXCEPTIONAL FRIENDSHIP

While current regulations prohibit the Go Prison Mission team from staying in contact with the inmates once their sentences are over, when Miller was released, Wowchuk asked for—and received—permission to stay in touch with him. “Aaron has poured so much into my life,” Wowchuk says. “He has been a big supporter, encouraging me to take Go Prison Mission and run with it and telling me, ‘Don’t doubt for a second that God is in this. It’s making a difference in so many lives.’”

Including Miller’s. Within a few months of his release, Miller lost both his mother-in-law and his wife, who passed away from a rare form of cancer. Wowchuk stood beside his friend and the two continue to support and challenge one another. Aaron is one of the most consistent relationships I have,” Wowchuk says. “I talk to him at least twice a week. I saw him in a really broken place but now that he’s out, we hardly ever talk about his time in prison because the past is the past. And we’re looking to the future.”

 AN AUDACIOUS DREAM

“If it weren’t for TWU, I don’t think I would have the courage to move forward with Go Prison Mission,” Wowchuk says. “At Trinity Western, I found a safe place to work through the struggles of growing a ministry.”

Long term, he plans to combine his business degree and passion for ministry by establishing his own private correctional facility. The concept would be to offer an intentional program—built around counselling, mentorship, and community integration. It would allow for a relational dynamic, currently absent in the public system out of necessity.

“A prison sentence can be the most unique period of time in somebody’s life,” Wowchuk says. “It can be a colossal waste of time—because there’s so much time they’re just left on their own—or it can be a time used for something so much bigger.

“We don’t have to feel guilt or shame, no matter where we come from,” he says. “God has ordained it all. No matter how dark our past may be, there is still a purpose for our lives.”

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