Several decades after being released from an Oregon prison, the Rev. Jack Hager continues to return to prison several times a week — this time to minister to offenders as a volunteer prison chaplain.
Hager has worked in prison ministry for several decades, spurred by his own experience with incarceration in the 1970s. Now he focuses on the needs of offenders at the Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph and Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo. He has made several visits a week for the last seven years.
“Basically, I think ministry is ministry,” Hager says. “You love God and you love people, whether it is a teenager or a convicted murderer or a sex offender. Other than the fact that they are confined, it’s really not any different than any other kind of ministry.”
After serving in Vietnam, he became a “stereotypical child of the ’60s,” Hager says, experimenting with drugs.
“I got busted in Texas on fugitive charges,” he says. “They threw me in a jail cell. A few days later, they found some drugs in the cell, which isn’t terribly unusual. They took everything out except the religious things.”
At 26 and “reasonably well educated,” he had never been to church except for weddings and funerals, Hager says.
“I’d always believed in God or a higher power or something, but I had no clue what Jesus Christ claimed to be,” he says. “I got bored and read a book that introduced me to the Bible, then I read the Bible for a while. After that … I trusted Christ.”
Unlike many people’s journeys to Christ, Hager says, his was taken alone.
“It’s unique in the sense that there was no human being directly involved,” he says. “It was just the word of God.”
After he finished his four years in prison, he was released and eventually attended religious training in Kansas City. As an ordained minister, he has planted a church in New York, served as an interim pastor for several churches and works for various ministries including Midland Ministries in St. Joseph. He now also gives presentations about his experiences in prison, ministry and military service.
As a volunteer prison chaplain, he attends Bible studies and speaks at the prison chapel. He is also available for one-on-one meetings with offenders.
“There are some people who think ‘If I just come to Jesus, they will be OK,’” Hager says. “But that’s not true. Some sins are legal. Some sins are illegal. If a guy’s got a heavy meth habit, although my goal is to introduce them to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, it’s not some simple way of saying ‘Now you are going to be a good guy for the rest of your life.’”
Taking personal responsibility for actions is key to being successful, Hager says.
“With or without Christ, until a guy mans up and says ‘I blew it,’ he can’t change,” Hager says. “I’m real big on personal responsibility. Coming to Jesus Christ doesn’t make everything all right for anybody. It does long-term, but short-term, you’ve still got to make your choices.”
His experience is a testament to the fact that it is possible to remain out of prison after being released, Hager says.
“I think it helps in some sense,” he says. “It gives me credibility to guys. Whether or not they buy into my faith, I’ve been out since 1977 and I’m making it.”
The biggest challenge comes when offenders are released and can face more temptations, the Rev. Hager says.
“Some of these guys, they hit the gate and they aren’t supposed to associate with someone who’s got a record. But mom’s got a record. Dad’s got a record.… It’s really, really tough,” he says. “I think anyone can make it on the street if they’ve got the want to, but it’s really, really difficult.”
He encourages the men to get involved with a church, if possible, after their release, and encourages churches to be open and accepting.
“I tell churches not to patronize the guys,” he says. “They aren’t your token ex-convicts. They are just the guy who happened to be incarcerated for a while. Treat him just like a brother.”
He hopes that more people will be interested in working in prison ministry in the future, but acknowledges that it isn’t right for everyone.
“It’s not for everyone,” he says. “I don’t like going to nursing homes. Some people don’t like going to the prisons. And that’s OK. But I’d recommend they try it sometime.”
In the end, it is a rewarding volunteer role, Hager says.
“It’s seeing a guy come to the faith, number one, that’s rewarding,” he says. “And it’s seeing a guy with that glimmer of hope that ‘Yes, I can make it.’”
This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the St. Joseph News-Press.