Missouri Nazarene ministers through prison letters

St. Joseph, Missouri

Ted Warner never thought he would be sending out as many letters as he does — 300 a week and sometimes more. He certainly didn’t expect to be sending those letters to 43 prisons in seven states, but each week, that’s exactly what he does.

About a decade ago, Ted started working as a corrections officer in the county jail in his hometown of St. Joseph, Missouri. One day, an inmate named Joe asked to speak to him. He would like a Bible, so the next day, Ted arrived at work with a simple Bible in hand.

About a week later Joe wanted to speak with Ted again. The Bible was great, he said, but could he get a study Bible?

“I told him the Bible was not special in itself unless it was read and its message applied,” Ted said.

Joe explained that he was leading a small Bible study during the inmates’ free time every day. So Ted brought him a study Bible. When Joe was transferred to prison, he asked if he could write to Ted. It would be the first of many letters they sent. Joe and Ted wrote each other regularly, and Joe started spreading the word. Soon, more and more men in the prison wanted to write Ted, too.

Letter for letter

“There was a time when I was handwriting letters and looking stuff up in the Bible for the guys, and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ted said. “Now, nine years later, it almost scares me sometimes because I know how important these letters are to the guys.”

“I thought I was overwhelmed with 40 [men to write to], and now I write to over 40 guys in two of the prisons,” he continues. “You kind of grow with it. I’ve grown in my faith with these guys, too.”

Ted sends out a weekly five-page newsletter — the maximum most prisons allow —  with Bible studies, crosswords, encouragement, and Scripture passages. When anyone writes back, he replies individually.

“They know me by first name at the post office,” Ted laughs.

Ted bases his ministry out of an unused office in his church, Turning Point Church of the Nazarene in St. Joseph. There, he has filing cabinets full of ideas for future letters and archives of past ones. He encourages recipients to go to chapel and get involved in a Bible study.

“Whatever you do,” he writes, “get involved and tell your story to someone.”

Sometimes content stands out in the pages of his archives, and he knows it’s what he should include that week.

“Every week I get personal letters — three to five a day — of people saying, ‘Thank you so much for what you sent, and you don’t know, but I’ve had this question for years and something you wrote answered it for me,’” Ted said.

Loved, not forsaken

Usually, Ted sends letters to men he’s never met and probably never will. A few of the relationships are a different, though. Several years ago, Ted got connected with Eddie, who at the time was wading through serious depression. No one had written Eddie since his mother died seven years prior, and another inmate who was receiving Ted’s letters noticed he was struggling. The man wrote to Ted and asked him to reach out to Eddie.

Eddie replied to Ted’s letter immediately. The letter was meant to warn him away: No one should want to be friends with a man like him, Eddie wrote.

“And I thought, ‘Man, here’s somebody who really, really needs God in a special way,’” Ted said.

The two men wrote each other for years and have met in person in the prison several times. While one slowly encouraged, the other slowly accepted that God could love him. Now, Eddie reads the Bible all the way through twice a year and shares it with other inmates.

Recently, Eddie learned that he lost his appeal for parole and would spend the rest of his life in prison. Ted asked how he felt. Eddie replied that he found Jesus in prison, so it is all right because he knows what he has to look forward to.

Ted said Eddie is a completely different man than he was four years ago.

“He’s my brother in Christ,” Ted said.

Many of the men Ted writes are in places similar to where Eddie was spiritually and emotionally. Some have been forsaken by relatives and others drove their friends and families away. Every week, Ted makes sure to remind the men reading his letters that they aren’t forsaken, but loved by God.

“It just seems to work,” he said. “And it works because God is directing it.”

Occasionally, Ted receives unrequested financial contributions to help cover the costs of the ministry — he spends close to $400 USD a month on postage alone —  but for the most part, he funds the ministry himself. He has been working past retirement in order to sustain this work he feels called to do.

“Regardless of age or ability, everyone should be doing something to touch the world for good and for God.”

--Republished with permission from the Summer 2017 edition of NCM Magazine

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