Minister carries message of faith and hope to jail

April 24, 1994|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Sun Staff Writer

Mark N. Wadel established a mission at the Carroll County Detention Center about a year ago with trepidation, a Bible in his hand and one thought on his mind.

"No one reaches the point where there can't be forgiveness," said Mr. Wadel, an ordained Mennonite minister and president of the Westminster ministerium.

Each week, Mr. Wadel carries God's message of forgiveness to the inmates he feels need it most.

"Nothing hit me the first time," Mr. Wadel said. "The second time, I stuck out my hand and made a close friend."

Timothy Cumberland, the "close friend," was sentenced Thursday to 40 years in prison for his role in the 1993 murder of Gregory L. Howard in Westminster. Over the past several months, Cumberland, who will soon be transferred to a state prison, has repeatedly asked Mr. Wadel if their friendship will continue.

"I tell him we will write weekly and I will be there, just not as often," Mr. Wadel said.

He also tells Cumberland that anyone can carry the message of faith and hope. "This shouldn't be centered around only me, but around any person who can strengthen the faith in others," he said.

Mr. Wadel counts drug abusers, murder suspects and DWI offenders among his friends.

"They shake my hand and embrace me," he said. "We are friends in faith. Am I any less or better than the people I minister to? No. We all approach the cross in the same way. The ground is level."

Since Mr. Wadel began his work with Carroll's inmates, he has turned their initial disdain into trust.

"I hear, 'When are you coming back?' like I am the only thing they are holding onto," he said. "I know it's not me. It's a new-found faith."

Two inmates awaiting murder trials also meet with him each week. They came to him of their own volition.

"I never ask them. I wait for them to ask for me," he said. "I sit and listen and try to keep any doctrine out of it. It is not doctrine that counts on the final day."

Mr. Wadel traces the foundations of his jail ministry to the Bible's admonition to visit prisoners. He said he has become a lifeline to many inmates who have shattered their lives with crime, drugs and alcohol abuse.

He meets individually with five inmates each week and, when it's possible, he leads a group discussion.

"They see such a value in the ministry. They talk about their lives, their families and their trials. We pray together for all their intentions," he said.

"A simple touch, when we pray gripping each other's hands, strengthens people," he said. "That touch, conveyed as caring, melts hard hearts."

Many prisoners -- everyone he sees is under 30 -- are "responding for the first time in their lives to something that makes sense." Often, the sharing has "drained" the pastor, he said.

"I know they have to share for their healing and for their minds to comprehend what forgiveness is about," he said. "Still, when you hear in detail a crime or the scene of the final moments in someone's life, you literally want to go off in a corner."

In February, Mr. Wadel joined a team of ministers, 10 men and women, at Bellavista, a maximum security prison in Medellin, Colombia, the home of one of the world's largest cocaine cartels.

"A former inmate carried the message of life and hope back to Bellavista," he said. "After he persevered for five years, lives are being changed."

A few years ago, the facility was known as the "dungeon of death," Mr. Wadel said, with many murders occurring inside its walls. Now, thanks largely to the efforts of one man, the inmates meet regularly for Bible study in a chapel they built themselves. They also have established a radio program that is broadcast daily throughout Medellin.

Mr. Wadel's reward for his ministry is the recognition that lives are changed through repentance and forgiveness.

He credits the inmates themselves with those changes.

"Inside the jail, their minds are governed by four walls," he said. "They have ample time to think, pray and get their lives in order."

He encourages others to follow him into prison ministry. He promises an experience that is "sometimes fascinating, a few times rewarding."

"If I believed there was no hope, it would be futile to see these people," he said. "God forgives all."

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