by Brian Kennedy, NJ Softball Missionary-athlete and former inmate
I was recently asked why I joined the Saints Prison Ministry softball team, and if I really thought that it would make a difference. This is my Jesus story… which serves as my answer.
Each of us has a back story: the events and circumstances that led to the realization of our need for a Savior. Mine started as a 2-year-old, when my mom abandoned my brother and me. My brother was five. She didn’t just leave, she did so while my dad was out to sea in the U.S. Navy. It was our neighbors who found us.
My dad got re-married, and the addition of his wife and her daughter from a previous marriage turned us into a stepfamily that can only be politely described as “dysfunctional.” In talking about her, I would often refer to her as my “step-monster” instead of stepmom. She was violently abusive and would fly into a rage at the slightest provocation. Of course, I didn’t help matters by getting into my fair share of trouble.
Sports were my escape. Between school and sports, my brother and I stayed out of the house as much as possible. However, everything changed when I lost my closest ally. My brother ran away and didn’t come back. I was 12-years-old.
My getting in trouble escalated. I started having petty run-ins with the law, which expanded my circle of acquaintances until I found myself in a mess I couldn’t get out of. I was 16 years old, charged with a capital crime, and the prosecution was seeking the death penalty. It was also the first time I had ever heard the Gospel clearly presented. For somebody in my position, the message of hope was something I could cling to like a life raft, and I surrendered my heart to Jesus. Nonetheless, I went to prison with a life sentence.
My exposure to the Saints prison softball ministry was in 2008 or 2009. I was at Baker Correctional Institution just outside of Jacksonville, Florida (Sanderson). We had a bit of advance notice that the Saints were coming in, so there was a process for choosing the best possible team. I made the team and seem to remember splitting a double-header. The Saints were competitive, had fun, joked with the guys, gave testimony, and presented the Gospel of Jesus Christ. By necessity, prisoners hone their ability to detect a fraud. It has been my experience, both in prison uniform and in Saints uniform, that the ministry team has been well-received as genuine and concerned about the eternal destiny of the men that they speak to.
The impact of that particular prison visit cannot be overstated. The anticipation was high, and a crew of guys worked on the field for weeks. The regular cast of spectators (read: hecklers) came out to the field to watch the games, but so did a bunch of guys who rarely did. There are some men who literally never get visits from family or friends, so people coming in automatically makes it a big deal. Another component that ministries don’t realize is that prisoners tend to elevate the credibility of “free world” people, giving them instant respect for coming to visit them.
The Saints encounter at Baker C.I. had an even greater impact because of a very special act of charity. When the team came in to play, they brought with them a new bat and an equipment bag full of new softball gloves to leave with us – 15 to be exact: 10 right handers; 5 left handers. There was no money in the department budget for recreation equipment, so our gloves were re-conditioned right there in the prison with whatever material we could get. The glove I used that day had a few layers of wool blanket sewn into the palm because the leather had deteriorated so badly. We played with that donated equipment for years, sharing the story of how we came to have it whenever new guys would transfer there. That was a gift with lasting, real-world application.
So, I return to my opening paragraph and the questions posed: “Why did I join the Saints prison ministry softball team, and did I really think it would make a difference?” After serving 26 years in prison, I know that I only made it out because of Jesus. I was convinced that He loved me, would never leave or forsake me, and that He would stick closer to me than a brother. That message of hope is the same one that I heard when the Saints came to visit me in prison, which means that joining their team affords me the opportunity to carry the message into the very kinds of places where God rescued me.
I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to minister alongside men of God who have welcomed me to the Saints with open arms. I pray that my story encourages anyone who reads it, but especially those who may be wondering if their efforts are worth all the sacrifice.