“You Visited Me”
Doing time with United Prison Ministries International
On a sweltering day in late August a U-Haul truck is winding its way from Verbena, Alabama, to the bustling metropolis of New York City. The journey will end at the gates of the Rikers Island correctional facility, the 413-acre island in the East River that sits between Queens and the Bronx and forms the state’s main prison system. More than 28,800 books sit in boxes in the cargo box of the U-Haul, two for every inmate housed in the 10 prisons on the island.
This journey seems a most improbable one. For starters, what are the chances that Chaplain William P. Vincent of Rikers Island would be flipping through TV channels and happen upon a 3ABN interview with Richard Bland, founder of United Prison Ministries International (UPMI), the only ministry in North America that sends free Bibles, Bible lessons, and books by Ellen White to any prisoner or chaplain who requests them?
When on the television broadcast Bland mentioned that for more than 34 years UPMI has been sending books such as Bible Questions Answered and The Desire of Ages into correctional facilities across the nation, the chaplain perked up. He knew the power of at least one of these books from firsthand experience.
“I know for a fact that any inmate who reads The Desire of Ages will be changed,” Vincent said when contacted for this story. “I know the difference it has made in my life, and I want every inmate to have one. God definitely inspired Ellen G. White to write that book. She said the gospel needs to be spread like the leaves of autumn, and this book does that.”
In all my years of interviewing Adventists, I had never heard anyone speak as glowingly about The Desire of Ages as had this non-Adventist chaplain.
Chaplain Vincent called United Prison Ministries International, made his request, and followed it up with an official letter. On August 26, 2014, Richard Bland and Chaplain Antonio Hall delivered the books to Rikers Island, the first time something like this had ever been done on the island. The delivery was especially meaningful to Hall, who 39 years earlier to the month had come to know God on Rikers Island when someone sent him a Bible.
With more than 71 million pieces of literature distributed to prisoners around the world, United Prison Ministries International is one of the most successful prison ministries in the world. But it was not always this way.
In the early 1980s, when Richard and Carolyn Bland settled near Birmingham, Alabama, prisoners were the furthest thing from their minds. Richard had traded a lucrative career in California’s exploding banking and real estate markets to follow the call of God.
“At the time we believed that God was calling us to open a vegan restaurant. We had it all planned out,” Bland says. “We would serve healthy, delicious meals by day and run Bible studies by night. Each patron would be given a Spirit of Prophecy book as a free gift on their way out of the restaurant.”
The Blands had devised their way, but God was ordering their steps. Plans changed one Sabbath afternoon when Richard and Carolyn were invited to go with a local ministry group to have Bible studies in a nearby prison. Bland still remembers the life-changing experience he had that day.
“There was something about that visit that changed my life. I took 200 Spirit of Prophecy books with me. Two weeks later the chaplain requested 1,000 more books. The prisoners loved the books. After I left that night, I felt God was calling me to serve the spiritual needs of prisoners. I had no idea things would turn out as they have, but I knew that night that God had called me to do this work.” The ministry just exploded from there, taking the Blands as far afield as Russia (working closely there with Ted Wilson, then president of the Euro-Asia Division), Indonesia, India, Norway, New Zealand, Australia, and Africa.
“In Matthew 25,” Bland observes, “Jesus told the disciples that God would judge them by how they dealt with six groups of people. The church has programs for five of those groups, but one is often forgotten—prisoners. God called me to serve that group, and I have continued to go to prisons most days during the week for the better part of 34 years.”
The Blands jettisoned their culinary pursuits and threw everything they had into serving the spiritual needs of prisoners. In 1980 God connected them with Robert Santini, then manager of the Pine Hills Sanitarium outside Birmingham. Santini and Chris Davis, a local elder at the Pine Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church, became the backbone of the fledgling prison ministry, which actually began as United Personal Ministries. Bland invited 13 congregations in the area to form the group in an effort to better serve the needs of prisoners throughout the state.
The early days were difficult ones. “One day early on, we had reached the end of our rope,” Bland remembers. “We had given all the money we had to the ministry and were down to $3.61 in our bank account. Things were tight. We prayed, asking God to do something. Two days later I went to the mailbox to check the mail, and I found an envelope. In it was a check for $20,000. When I called the man who sent it, he said, ‘God told me to send that money to you.’ The man knew nothing about the ministry.”
A self-supporting ministry of the Adventist Church, United Prison Ministries International has never sought funding from the church. Bland—a sort of modern-day George Mueller—and his supporters have built UPMI on the Matthew 7:7 principle of asking God to supply their every need and trusting Him to do so. Bland believes that God’s will is God’s bill.
From that fateful day at the mailbox God has moved men and women the world over to help fund the purchase of gospel literature for prisoners. “It always comes just in time,” Bland muses. Like the time in 1999 when UPMI decided to place a copy of The Desire of Ages in the hands of every prisoner in the United States, a Christmas project that would cost nearly $2 million for printing and postage.
The project was the brainchild of Shirley Loebmiller, a former chaplain of the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Alabama, now deceased. After witnessing the transformation that books such as The Desire of Ages had made in the lives of prisoners, the chaplain left her job to volunteer full-time with UPMI to get literature to prisoners around the country.
Through the sacrificial giving of believers, 2 million books were printed by the Review and Herald Publishing Association, awaiting the money necessary to mail them. That’s when a Mrs. Taylor from Kentucky called to inquire how she might purchase a box of books to distribute in her community. While speaking to Bland, she inquired about the Christmas project for prisoners.
After talking with her husband about the project, the Taylors sent two checks totaling $100,000 to support the project. The money, Bland later found out, had been set aside to build their retirement home. But they both decided that they’d rather see 100,000 prisoners ($1 per book) receiving the gospel than live in a nice house. They were living in a trailer at the time. A few weeks later enough donations came in to mail all 900,000 books.
Today UPMI is poised to do an even greater work than it has in its storied history. The ministry recently launched the “25 by 20” initiative in an effort to share the gospel with prisoners and their families. It is estimated that each of the nation’s 2.3 million incarcerated persons has at least 10 people in his or her “orbit”—family, friends, acquaintances, etc. That amounts to roughly 25 million people, when all connections are counted. UPMI wants to share the gospel with all 25 million of these people by 2020, should God tarry.
This monumental task cannot be accomplished without the support of men and women who feel moved by God to lend a helping hand. United Prison Ministries International is asking Christians everywhere to join the $1 a Day for Jesus Club to help fund the resources needed to meet the goal. For instance, a $30 donation funds 420 Bible studies, or 15 copies of The Desire of Ages, or 10 Bibles. “With God’s help,” Bland believes, “many prisoners and their families will be in the kingdom because of this simple initiative.”
At 84 years young, Richard Bland’s body is showing the wear and tear of a life given to the service of God; but his passion is undiminished. Every time the way seems difficult he takes comfort in a favorite passage from—you guessed it— The Desire of Ages: “In that day Christ does not present before men the great work He has done for them in giving His life for their redemption. He presents the faithful work they have done for Him. To those whom He sets upon His right hand He will say, ‘Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.’ ”*
* Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), p. 637.