In 1993 Daniel Blomberg, prison chaplains coordinator for Foursquare Chaplains International and director of Jubilee Prison Ministry headquartered in Eugene, Ore., was part of a team of 25 fellow ministers from the Coalition of Prison Evangelists (COPE) who went into the ex-Soviet republic of Estonia to train indigenous chaplains. An amazing event awaited them at Rummu II, an old maximum-security prison with a violent history.
Rummu II was a site during the Cold War where prisoners made machine-tooled parts for the Soviet military. When the USSR dissolved in 1993, the Russians pulled out, taking their money with them but leaving the machinery behind.
As a way to bring cash into the facility, the prison commander permitted an inmate cottage industry to develop—knife-making—a questionable enterprise to entrust to violent offenders. As a result, money came in, but about three inmates a week went out, killed in knife fights.
The COPE team had obtained permission from the Estonian government to visit Rummu II, but when they arrived, the commander refused them entrance. The team prayed, and finally was ordered to wait in a secured hallway until everyone’s passports were processed.
Blomberg sensed this was a stall tactic, but the team could go nowhere—at one end of the hallway was a solid steel door; at the other end, a door of steel bars. So they prayed again.
Minutes later, a prison guard stood at the steel door, signaling the team to come his way. The man did not look like the other Estonian guards. He was blond, tall and blue-eyed. He said nothing while opening the first steel door, then about six more, as the team followed him.
“He never used a key. We assumed the doors were unlocked,” Blomberg says.
The last door opened into a large room where 200 inmates waited. The COPE team set up, and began singing and worshiping. Blomberg noticed that the guard was gone.
Suddenly the prison commander burst into the room, extremely upset, demanding to know how the team had gotten there. Blomberg told him.
“I wish I could describe the look on the commander’s face. He was in shock,” Blomberg says. “He said he had been at the prison for years, and there was no such guard. He left quickly to conduct an immediate investigation.”
The team again was left alone with the inmates. Blomberg preached a message, and all 200 of the men gave their lives to Jesus.
Not long after that visit, Blomberg was told by Estonian believers that God had taken away the “spirit of murder” at Rummu II. Six months later, no killings had occurred there. A year later, still no killings—and 1,000 inmates had come to Christ. During the four consecutive years that Blomberg returned to Rummu II, no killings occurred.
“Going into jail and prison, you see God work,” he says. “God can do anything, if He wants to.”
The team is convinced that the tall, blond guard was an angel. Blomberg and others snapped photos of him as they passed through the secured doors, but the man did not appear in anyone’s developed film.
The majority of Foursquare’s prison ministers work with male inmates. Sandra Sebesta, 60, is one of the few female Foursquare chaplains.
Since March 2008, she has been the Protestant chaplain at one of the largest women’s prisons in the world—Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Calif., where the roughly 4,000 inmates serve sentences ranging from a few years to life without parole.
Sebesta was employed in real estate when she started in prison ministry as a volunteer 15 years ago. She’s been to seminary, gotten a master’s degree, and was ordained 10 years ago. She views prison ministry much like Blomberg does.
“I’ve never seen so many miracles as I’ve seen in prison,” she says. “They happen daily. I’ve never seen more miracles occur outside of prison.”
She believes the reason that God moves so freely inside prison walls has everything to do with the inmates themselves. “Their cry to the Lord is real,” she explains. “They are so desperate for Him that He comes through for them.”
Drug crimes, primarily, are behind the incarceration of women—most of whom committed crimes after first being the victims of crime.
“The vast number of women in prison were themselves victims,” Sebesta says. “They were abused, sexually mostly, sometimes horribly. I can count on my fingers and toes the number here who haven’t been abused.”
She notes that grief is a major issue for imprisoned women, more so than for men.
“When men go into prison, their women tend to hold the families together for them. But when women go to prison, their men by and large are unfaithful,” she explains. “Women tend to lose their families, including their children, while they are in prison.”
Sebesta, who attends The Living Way Foursquare Church in Oakhurst, Calif., prays during her 75-minute commute to work, so she can be prepared for whatever her day holds. At the prison, her ministry includes counseling, and holding Bible studies and church services.
Separate services in English and Spanish are offered. The main weekly service is scheduled on Saturday, so that community volunteers won’t miss their own church services on Sunday.
Of her personal spiritual life, Sebesta notes that she “didn’t operate in the gifts of the Spirit before volunteering for prison ministry,” but adds: “Those gifts were churned up in prison.” She considers her ministry a joy.
“I love what I do,” she says, but adds: “To do this, it must be a calling. If not, then you end up trying to meet the women’s needs and don’t provide them with the answer—which is the Lord. He is their answer, their hope, their peace, their love.”
This is part 2 of a 3-part story spotlighting some of the amazing people within Foursquare who minister to those in prison.