When a group of ex-prisoners walked into Stephen James’s prison and began sharing their stories of change, healing and forgiveness, Stephen didn’t think he’d ever be one of them.
“I went up to the guy who was running the ministry and said, ‘You don’t know how bad I’ve been.’ I started to list every bad thing I’d done in my life when he stopped me. He told me, ‘I don’t want to know about what you’ve done. We love you, and Christ loves you.’”
That day was a turning point for Stephen, who at 25 years old, was serving a four-year sentence in HMP Prison in Shrewsbury, England, for drug possession.
Stephen grew up in Leek, England as the youngest of five children. His father was an alcoholic, and his mother withered under his father’s physical and psychological abuse.
“There wasn’t any love,” said Stephen. “No encouragement, no investment in the children. We grew up in fear.”
Stephen often questioned the bad things that happened in his life. His school performance suffered, and at 15 years old, he began to follow in his father’s footsteps, working construction by day and drinking his nights away.
“I lived my life in the bars, pubs and clubs,” said Stephen. “And that progressed to drugs.”
It started with cannabis, and quickly spiraled into speed, ecstasy and LSD.
“Then, I was introduced to methadone, which is a substitute for heroin addicts. But to get it, you have to show up to the doctor with heroin in your system, so you can claim you were an addict.”
But it wasn’t just a claim.
“I started dealing. The low point of my life was using intravenously—injecting five to six times a day. I was suicidal and remember thinking I couldn’t carry on like this.”
In 1995, Stephen was caught and convicted for possession of heroin. He was sentenced to four years in prison and served two. At that point, he was convinced he would go back to drugs when he was released. But transformation was already taking shape, as Stephen began asking the God question.
“If you’d have asked me if there is a God, I would have said yes. But I didn’t know him personally.”
Near the end of Stephen’s sentence, men from Victory Outreach visited his prison. They brought ex-offenders with them, who shared their stories of brokenness, drug addiction and alcohol abuse. This got Stephen’s attention.
“I identified with them,” he said. “I’ll never forget when I was in prison. I was abandoned. My family didn’t want to know me. Nobody visited me. I didn’t think my life could change. But they all said that Jesus changed their life. And that was the moment for me.”
Stephen cracked open a Bible and began his exploration of who Jesus is, why He came and what He called Stephen to do. He found the answers to his questions about life, purpose and identity. Stephen committed his life to Christ.
When Stephen was released from prison in August, 1997, he was determined to not go back. He moved to South Wales, where Victory Outreach supported his reintegration for two years as he rebuilt his life. He worked construction while he went back to school, eventually earning a college degree in sociology and social studies. He met his wife, got married and started a family.
Then, in 2008, prison loomed on the horizon once again when a group from Christianity Explored Ministries approached Stephen to develop a course, based on the Gospel of Mark, to be taught in prisons.
“I didn’t want to go back to prison,” said Stephen. “But I felt a calling to go back. It was clear that God wanted me to be involved in prison ministry.”
Stephen spent the next eight years developing and teaching what would become the basis for Prison Fellowship International’s groundbreaking in-prison evangelism and discipleship program, The Prisoner’s Journey®.
“The challenge was to write the course to fit the needs of the prison context, to make it adaptive.”
Stephen sat in on many courses, and eventually drew up a model that merged the course materials with several other proven in-prison courses, including Prison Fellowship International’s Sycamore Tree Project®: Justice and Peace victim-offender reconciliation program.
“We trialed the program for about a year, always asking for feedback from the prisoners.”
To keep the prisoners’ interests and accommodate varying academic levels, the course is mostly oral and the exercises are kept short and visual with questions and drawings on flip charts, and lots of repetition.
“We talk about where we’ve been in the course and where we’re going. We work step-by-step through a theme each week and look at a couple of verses. We keep the guys moving around a lot.”
In 2014, Stephen helped adapt the course for Prison Fellowship International’s The Prisoner’s Journey program. It has since reached more than 1.5 million prisoners with an invitation to learn about Jesus.
Stephen regularly watches men and women come into the course saying the same things he used to say — “I can’t change. You don’t know where I’ve been.” — and seeing them, step-by-step, begin to understand and live the message and hope of Christ.
“One of the most rewarding things I’ve heard a prisoner says is, ‘I’m more free in prison than I would be outside, now that I have Christ in my life.’”
As Stephen travels the globe to train Prison Fellowship affiliate leaders to teach the course, he’s confronted by many challenges as an ex-convict. Yet, he says his life is constantly shaped and authenticated by the Gospel, and he wouldn’t trade prison ministry for anything else.
“Obviously, I’ve got criminal convictions. . . . It’s like I’m constantly vetted as a person each time I enter a new country. But I wouldn’t be doing this work if it wasn’t for the Gospel. It is about loving the prisoner. It doesn’t matter what they’ve done. And sometimes that’s tough. Because we’re good at loving people who are good towards us, who are nice people, but it really is about loving the prisoner. And I haven’t been refused in any country yet. That’s an amazing testimony, isn’t it?”
Stephen facilitating a course session of The Prisoner’s Journey in Nairobi, Kenya
Help other prisoners around the world hear the invitation to know Christ as their savior through The Prisoner’s Journey evangelism and discipleship program.