From Darkness to Light – Andy Corley Shares Stories of Transformation

Andrew (Andy) Corley, President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International (PFI), joined Dawn Rae and Steve Hiller on Moody Radio’s Dawn and Steve in the Morning to talk through his journey to Prison Fellowship International, share about a range of PFI programs, including The Prisoner’s Journey and The Child’s Journey, and capture the hearts of listeners through compelling stories of lives being transformed around the world.  

To hear Andy, Dawn and Steve’s discussion, click play to listen or read the transcript (below). You can also listen to the interview, different segments or other programs on Moody Radio.   

[00:00:00] Steve Hiller: We want to introduce you to Andy Corley. He is the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International. Andy, thanks for joining us this morning.  

[00:00:09] Andy Corley: Yeah, it’s my pleasure. It’s an honor to be here. Thanks a lot.  

[00:00:11] Steve: Well, you have been with Prison Fellowship International since 2012. Before we get into a little bit of your story, tell us a little bit about the organization. What is Prison Fellowship International?  

[00:00:24] Andy: So, Prison Fellowship, as many of your listeners will know, was set up in 1976 by Chuck Colson. Chuck was the chief council in the Nixon government in the U.S and he spent a little bit of time inside prison and following that, and he had a real rejuvenation in his walk with the Lord. 

He began Prison Fellowship in the United States, and what happened was that several people came to Chuck and said, “We love what you’re doing with the prisoners and their families in the United States, but what we’d like you to do is set up an international fellowship association. Chuck did that and Prison Fellowship International was born three years later in 1979. We’re now in 117 countries around the world. There’s a very wonderful national ministry still in the United States, Prison Fellowship. They do amazing work in the U.S. Prison Fellowship International is the association and kind of global collective impact alliance of all the other national ministries around the world. 

[00:01:25] Dawn Rae: That’s amazing to think about people being met with the Gospel within prison walls all across the world. Andy, your story. Give us a little bit of your backstory and how the Lord brought you to Prison Fellowship International.  

[00:01:41] Andy: Well, it really all began in 2010 when I attended, as a businessman, the Lausanne gathering in South Africa, which was something that was set up between John Stott and Billy Graham, and it was a global evangelization Congress. 

I was invited as a businessman because at that time, I had spent 20 years in global, multinational businesses and also at that time was running a small start-up, entrepreneurial business. I was invited to speak at the Global Executive Leadership Forum, which is a very pompous title, but there were some amazing people there. In the audience was the CEO of Prison Fellowship International, and I was invited on the board.

To be honest, I fell in love with the organization immediately — with the mission, with the people that I met, with the kind of work that was being done around the world.

I served on the board for about seven years and then I got an unexpected opportunity to liquidate my shareholding in the business that I co-owned and PFI was looking for a new CEO. I stepped off the board so it could make an independent decision and the rest is history. I became the CEO four and a half years ago.  

[00:02:54] Steve: What was it that caused you to fall in love with the ministry? You said you know, it kind of captured your attention and your heart. What was it about the ministry that drew you in?  

[00:03:04] Andy: Well, I got invited to a global convocation in Toronto in 2011, and frankly,

I saw something that I’d really not experienced before which was a cross-confessional group of people – from the Roman Catholic tradition, the Orthodox tradition, evangelical tradition — who love Jesus first and foremost. That was very obvious that they loved God with all the heart, soul and strength, but also, they loved the prisoner and their families. It was that that was the uniting factor.

You know, prison work is tough. It’s challenging. There are barriers around prisons for very good reasons so getting into them can be hard work. It was just the quality of people and also a growing sense that what was happening around the world was that we weren’t taking Jesus into the prisons, we were following him in. That really grabbed me over the coming years, became a real passion for me. As you said, I served on the board first of all, and now I’m the CEO but it was really that, it was passion for the mission and just this amazing international family that we were building on that had been set up over 40 years.  

[00:04:13] Dawn: Wow. I love the statement: “We were not taking Jesus into the prison; we were following him in.” Andy, is there a particular prison/ country that most surprised you that the Lord opened the doors?  

[00:04:28] Andy: Yeah, I would probably say Colombia was the first time that I experienced [that] in Medellín’s Bella Vista Prison, which had a reputation during the Pablo Escobar years to have been the most violent prison in the world. To enter that prison and to see the transformation that had taken place, largely because of the good news of Jesus and the way that he was transforming lives, really spoke to me. Since then, I’ve traveled to many, many countries, been in many prisons. That sense of experiencing God never leaves.

You know, you’re right on the razor-sharp edge between light and darkness so there’s always a very strong sense of God’s presence there, which you encounter in different ways, in different cultures, in different countries. 

[00:05:15] Dawn: When we come back, we want to talk about that, that sense of God being there. Andy Corley is with us. He’s the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International. More of the God stories as they go into 117 countries until the whole world hears it. It just reminds me of what Moody Radio Partners do as well. Thanks for joining us this morning. More with Andy on the way. It’s Dawn and Steve Moody Radio.  

We have the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International with us, Andy Corley. Andy, as you talk about the heart that God has given you for Prison Fellowship International and just to see Him at, work following Him into prisons and when we see His hand and we want to just join Him in the work. 

You’ve done that for several years now with Prison Fellowship International. Can you walk with us through what happens when this Bible- based program goes into a prison, interacting with those that are there and then a life change happens? Can you share one prisoner story? 

[00:06:21] Andy: There are so many stories that it’s probably better for your audience to talk generally, but I could definitely put faces on names.

Imagine you’re at the darkest point in your life where you’ve lost all hope, where you are incarcerated for the decisions that you’ve taken, for the harm that you’ve committed, and you’re faced with yourself. Into that, for the first time ever, you are in a fertile ground, if you like, to hear a message that starts off with you answering three questions: who is Jesus, why did he come, what does that mean for me? This is what we call The Prisoner’s Journey. 

It’s a self-discovery course. It’s based on the gospel of Mark and the whole idea is that you encounter Jesus who was a prisoner. Since 2014 when this program was begun, we have that 580,000 men and women in 42 countries graduate that program. It has been absolutely huge in its impact. 

What is also really wonderful about that program is that there’s a very high take up, higher than 70% around the world, of discipleship. Men and women who graduate The Prisoner’s Journey are then asking for further biblical discipleship. Now, there was one other thing that was just amazing as this program began to be rolled out, was that we got lots of anecdotal evidence from the prisons that, as a result of men and women engaging in scripture, the culture in the prison was changing. We began to study that with Baylor University, Byron Johnson and his team who are very renowned experts in this field. This was the first international study that has ever taken place, but Byron and his team have done a huge amount of work in the United States on this, that scripture engagement produces the following impacts. 

The first is a crystallization of discontent: “I don’t like my life. I want it to change.” That leads to, with scripture engagement, identity transformation, which is really key. That there is a God who loves me, a God who forgives me, God who says that my last act does not need to define the rest of my future, a God who promises to give me hope. Scripture engagement produced that crystallization of discontent leading to an identity transformation. The identity transformation then led to increases in pro-social behavior, reductions in levels of violence, increases in levels of hope, those kinds of things. 

It was that, that the prison authorities themselves in the two countries that we studied, Columbia and South Africa, that really gave us the confidence [that] these programs were working. It’s not the only program that we run and it’s certainly not the only program that our national ministries run because the whole vision really is to break the cycle of crime and that’s very multifaceted. 

Certainly, the good news of Jesus has a massive impact in men and women’s lives when they learn about who God is and what he says about them. So, for us, it’s just been a huge opportunity to serve in those kinds of environments.  

[00:09:41] Steve: Andy, as you think about the fact that prisons, as you were talking about earlier, are not always easy to get into. They’ve got all sorts of fences and security and protocol and things to get in there. Are there certain places around the world where you find it much easier to get into prisons to be able to share the gospel? Are certain parts of the world more receptive to your ministry than others?  

[00:10:06] Andy: Yeah, we’re definitely seeing totally open doors across the continent of Africa, in Latin America and in parts of Asia Pacific, without a doubt. We mobilize about 43,000 volunteers around the world through our national ministries so during the COVID pandemic, they weren’t able to get in. Now, the amazing thing was that the programs in many respects still continued unabated. When the pandemic ended, the prison governors and prison authorities were just desperate to have us back in which was a great validation of the amazing work that our national ministries do.

We are there really to serve those communities by connecting them with volunteers from local churches and thereby to establish relationships, which is a critical part of what it means for a prisoner when they finally have served their sentence to come back into community. Having relationships there, keeping their families together (which is something that we also do and are increasing our efforts in that area) is vital to their rehabilitation and the church has got a massive role to play in that. 

[00:11:12] Steve: Talking with Andy Corley this morning. He is the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International. Andy was on a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where some of this training took place. We’re going to find out what the results of that were coming up in just few moments. 

We’re talking with Andy Corley. He is the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International. Andy, I know recently you were over in Nairobi, Kenya, where you were involved in some training that took place. Tell us a little bit about what happened there in Kenya.  

[00:11:43] Andy: We were in Nairobi because it was the largest gathering of countries to be trained in The Prisoner’s Journey, which is this eight-week course that I was telling you about. We had 11 national ministries there. I should say that all of our national ministries are independent and indigenous. We kind of hang together out of common mission and care and love for each other, but in Kenya, it’s a Kenyan board and it’s a Kenyan executive director, and we really believe in that model.

As PFI, the piece that I’m CEO of, we act like a global catalyst putting a big arm around the shoulders of our brothers and sisters who are serving in the prisons of the world and bringing programs and startup finance and things like that to them, as well as training in leadership and governance. 

We had 11 national ministries who were at this event. Brand new countries that are going to be training volunteers, going into the prisons and rolling out this course. It was a big event for us. To that, we added another five national ministries who were there for refresher training, so they’ve been running this course for many years now, but they were there for refresher training. 

Alongside that, we brought together six of our most fruitful national ministries and some of our most mature national ministries that act like a president’s council to myself and our COO Dave and kind of inform our thinking about how we can do more and be more effective and effectively glorify God more in the work that we do. 

It was a very big event, probably one of the largest that we’ve held since the convocation in 2011, but very fruitful. We were so excited. People were just really thrilled to be in each other’s presence again, it was a very good time. We got on a prison visit, and I got to meet the honorable Chief Justice of the Supreme Court while I was there, who was really interested to talk about the work that PFI was doing and then how they might be able to collaborate with PF Kenya, wanting to learn a little bit of what was going on around the world. 

Most criminal justice systems, most prison systems, they all have challenges and one of the great things that I think that we are able to do because we’re there to serve them as well, is to help with some of the programs and interventions that are really working around the world and that was what she wanted to talk to me about, which was a great honor.  

[00:14:14] Dawn: Andy, as you meet and as you’ve met prisoners throughout this journey as you’ve been CEO and President of Prison Fellowship International, can you tell us one story about a prisoner who’s been transformed by the gospel? 

[00:14:29] Andy: Earlier this year, I went to Colombia. I mentioned Bella Vista Prison already, and I met a gentleman there who told me his story. His name was Carlos Velasquez and in 1993, he was a prisoner in Bella Vista. He’d been involved in a drug cartel and had been put away for his crimes for 11 years. But in the first year that he was inside prison, he’d come to know Jesus. This had radically transformed his life and since that conversion, since encountering Jesus in the prison, now he’s out of prison, he’s back in his community.  

As I said, I met him while he was there, but he’s begun to carve wood. He started while he was inside prison and now, he continues and I use his carvings. He’s got a kind of signature piece, which is a set of praying hands and he learned that [through] his wood carving, God was speaking to him about it being a representation of his life that God takes a rough, ugly piece of wood, which is a metaphor for all of us, which represented his life before knowing Jesus. But then he carves it into the hands in a position of worship and prayer. They really are very beautiful. I have several that whenever I travel internationally, I very often give them as gifts because I think it’s just a great representation of the heart of God towards prisoners in particular, but to all of us, how he redeems us, how he loves to do that. He leaves the prisoner to prosperity, and so it’s just a fabulous thing to be able to have with me.  

Carlos became a friend when I was in Colombia earlier this year, and now he goes back into Bella Vista prison and he’s a trainer for The Prisoner’s Journey. We have an absolute bagful of stories like that. We’re not short of amazing testimony of how good God has been to people who’ve been behind bars and indeed is to all of us.  

[00:16:36] Dawn: With over 580,000 people going through the program and encountering Christ on a personal level, no doubt you have stories. Maybe we can find out about another story, I hear that there may be somebody in Zambia that has a testimony to give to us this morning. Just hearing what God has been at work doing through this ministry, and of course, the heart that he gave Chuck Colson to start this ministry back in 1976 and now internationally since 1979. Andy, just thinking about what you mentioned with Zambia, there is a prisoner there, a former prisoner, where do we find this person in the journey of faith? 

[00:17:17] Andy: Yeah, so Bernard lives on the outskirts of Ndola. Imagine a very, very poor dwelling where he is now with his family. Bernard spent five years inside prison and while he was there, one of the programs that Prison Fellowship International kind of sets up with national ministries is called The Child’s Journey. 

It’s a very holistic response. Children of an incarcerated parent face a very, very difficult suite of problems in front of them. It’s just known that the issues that they face are significant and severe. In order to break the cycle of crime, which is our vision, and to restore lives worldwide through Jesus’s love, the board and the exec, we have decided that working with children is really important. The Child’s Journey is a holistic response to the issues of crime in a child’s life and basically, there are four interventions in The Child’s Journey: security, education, health and spiritual resiliency. It’s designed to also connect them with local volunteers in local churches as a community. 

While Bernard is away in prison, Prison Fellowship Zambia is looking after his family and keeping his family together. While Bernard is in prison, we are ministering and serving him through the programs. I got to go and meet Bernard and his family now that he was out. He had graduated pretty much every program that we were offering in that country. 

He’d done The Prisoner’s Journey and had a certificate. He had done the Public Reading of Scripture which is a collaboration that we have with another organization in the United States. He’d also done the Sycamore Tree Project and often in countries like Zambia graduation, with a certificate presented in front of a parole board can contribute to receiving parole. 

They really value the programs that we are doing there and it can be very helpful to a prisoner. Bernard had all the certificates, but on there is a space for my signature. He presented me very proudly, showed me all of these. I don’t think he really had any clue who I was, which is absolutely fine, there’s no reason for you to do that, but there was the space for a signature, but it was unsigned. I was able to sign these three certificates for him and to meet his family.

That probably is the best illustration that I can give you of how impactful national ministries in the PFI family are being, in terms of: looking after families who are outside, keeping them together, ministering and serving the incarcerated parent while they’re inside, helping them to then come together outside, reducing the possibility that they will recidivate and go back into prison.  

I met Bernard, his family were doing so well. He had four girls and one boy. He was very proud of his boy because he was playing for the Zambian national soccer team as a goalkeeper. There was just a great opportunity to see all of these things coming together and to feel that we were actually, by the grace of God, able to serve them, make a difference in their lives, show them practically and through proclamation, what it means to be followers of Jesus. They were now part of our family. It was just a real privilege. Like I said before, we just have a lot of those.

God is active and he does lead the prisoner to prosperity.  

[00:21:01] Steve: Absolutely love hearing the stories of how God is active, how he is doing that and how he is using Prison Fellowship International to really impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people around the world who find themselves incarcerated, but not only them, the families as well. Love The Child’s Journey and all the different programs that you are involved in. Andy Corley with us. He is the President and CEO of Prison Fellowship International.