Mr. Owen’s Neighborhood

If state officials decided to build a prison near your town, how would you feel? Worried? Anxious? That's exactly how the residents of Limestone County, Alabama, felt when they heard about plans to build a correctional center there. Several citizens raised their voices in protest. There was one man, though, who raised his voice not in protest but in prayer. Bert Owen was a retired engineer, a thin, white-haired man. When the bulldozers and jackhammers arrived, Bert wheeled his bicycle down to the construction site. As he watched the prison walls go up, he prayed for the prisoners who were coming there. And when the cells were finally filled, Bert immediately signed up as a volunteer. It was a brave step--he'd never done anything like it before. The first day he stood hesitantly wondering where to begin. Then he noticed a group of men standing in a circle. He walked over and discovered they were Christians. God had led him straight to a group of believers! Things couldn't have worked out better, Bert thought. The group welcomed him and eagerly agreed to attend a Bible study. The next step, however, was not so easy. When he returned, Bert discovered that twenty men--about half white and half black--had signed up for the Bible study. "Good," he said, "let's open with prayer," and routinely asked the men to hold hands. Instantly, the room was charged with tension. The inmates scowled and stepped back. What was wrong? Then Bert saw: The whites and blacks were refusing to join hands with one another. Quickly, Bert switched gears. Today's lesson, he decided, would be about Christian unity. "Men," he said, "if you're going to form a church behind bars, you've got to start by loving each other." Unfortunately, the message was not well received. Before Bert finished, half the class had walked out. That day, he left the prison discouraged. But he had prayed over these inmates for months and he wasn't going to give up now. When he returned the next week, there was a pleasant surprise: All the men who had walked out were back again. Yet he knew the big test was still to come. Taking a deep breath, he said, "Okay men, let's join hands and pray." Then he waited. Slowly, awkwardly, the men held out their hands--blacks and whites together. It was a small miracle, the first of many Bert was to witness over the years. Today, Bert works with Prison Fellowship, still riding his bike over to visit inmates and lead Bible studies. The funny thing, Bert says, is that for years he'd asked God to send him to the mission field. But instead God sent a mission field to him--in the form of a prison. So if state officials decide to build a prison near your town, remember Bert's story. It may well be God's way of calling you to a mission field.


Chuck Colson


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