Volunteers minister in senior living facilities and jails

Pastor Jerry leads singing at a senior living facility. Contributed photo

“Some of the loneliest and most forgotten people are residents in senior care facilities and inmates in jails,” said Pastor Jerry David. “God laid these people on my heart.” When he learned that 70 percent of residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities receive no regular visitors, he knew he had to reach out to them but could not fill the need himself. He began recruiting volunteers from area churches.

After pastoring a Lake Crystal church for 20 years and working as a chaplain in nursing homes and as an associate chaplain at ISJ-Mayo Hospital in Mankato, he began raising financial support for his new full-time job. He became an approved missionary with American Missionary Fellowship (now called InFaith), which handles all support donations. (AMF is one of the oldest non-denominational mission society groups in the United States.) Gentle Shepherd Ministries, founded in 2005, is a nonprofit organization affiliated with InFaith, as is Broken Chains Fellowship, which ministers to jail inmates.

Gentle Shepherd Ministries now has 51 volunteers serving 50 senior living facilities in 17 south central and southwestern Minnesota counties. Pastor David and his wife, Dorphia (who joined him in the ministry in 2016), visit about half of those facilities themselves. The ministry also is developing in the northeastern and southeastern areas of the state, as well as in the Twin Cities.

Broken Chains Fellowship ministers to men and women in county jails and in Hennepin County Corrections. Some volunteers serve in both Gentle Shepherd Ministries and Broken Chains Fellowship.

Matt Letourneau, volunteer chaplain and associate director, baptized former inmate Travis Mellen in Mankato’s Hiniker Pond. Mellen’s story is one of the many success stories of the Broken Chains Fellowship. Contributed photo

Pastor David said, “Our mission is to partner with churches to provide effective services in senior care facilities and in county jails, supplementing established programs–to reach out with God’s love, to share biblical truths of hope and to demonstrate compassion and care for people in need. We will work alongside any church or other organization that desires training to do volunteer work in senior care facilities or jails. We want to share the gospel, disciple believers and show the love of Jesus as we comfort and encourage people.”

Broken Chains Fellowship was born when Pastor David received a call from a nurse in his church. He said, “She took care of inmates at the Watonwan County Jail and said there was a despondent inmate. I visited him for two months and then he was transferred to another facility. I thought that was the end of that, but I got a call from another inmate, and that was the start of the jail ministry.” He recruited Steve Hultengren, a semi-retired pastor, as the first volunteer for Broken Chains Fellowship.  

Hultengren said, “That was before Broken Chains Fellowship had a name. Now I also visit the Blue Earth County Jail (the largest county jail in Southern Minnesota) and the Nicollet County Jail. I must have connected with over 100 inmates over the years, with Bible study and encouragement. I continue to correspond with some of them.”

Steve Hultengren is a volunteer with Gentle Shepherd Ministries and Broken Chains Fellowship. Contributed photo

“Someone reached out to me when I was a troubled teenager, and now I’m reaching out to them. I tell them, ‘Heaven will not be filled up with good people; heaven will be filled up with forgiven people who knew they needed a savior.’”

The volunteer chaplain and associate director of Broken Chains Fellowship is Matt Letourneau. He and volunteer Ron Hanson, a retired minister who lives in Madelia, alternate visiting the Watonwan County Jail. Because the area has a substantial Spanish-speaking population, Hanson distributes Spanish Bibles.

Hanson said, “When I retired seven years ago, Jerry David contacted me. There may be nine inmates in the whole jail, and I usually meet with three to five of them. A lot of young people in jail–mostly teens through age 30–just have made poor decisions. You hope that somewhere along the line you can make a difference.”

Once a month Hanson also holds a church service at a senior living facility in Madelia. He said, “It’s wonderful–you have a captive audience.”

Although several of the people involved are ordained ministers, it’s certainly not a requirement, nor is it their full-time job. Hultengren makes his living repairing clocks and watches. Letourneau works as a security counsel (guard) at the state hospital in St. Peter.

“The word ‘minister’ means ‘to serve,’” said Letourneau. “We are all ministers.” Volunteers come from various backgrounds, such as Bev Reichel, a nurse, and Joe Marcotte, a retired military officer, who sings and plays the guitar during visits.

Jail ministry includes Bible studies and visiting and counseling inmates. Volunteers are trained in ministering to victims of drug and alcohol abuse, handling group meetings, mentoring and counseling.

Matt Letourneau, is the volunteer director of Broken Chains Fellowship. Contributed photo

It was obvious that inmates were unlikely to respond to the name Gentle Shepherd Ministries, so Letourneau and Hultengren met to discuss the name Broken Chains Fellowship, which had come to Hultengren in a dream. Letourneau said, “We prayed about it and took it to the inmates to talk and think about for a week. They were unanimous in thinking it was fantastic, so we did it. Now people know that Broken Chains Fellowship is not affiliated with any church or any other organization having a similar name. We’re affiliated with Jesus.”

Some volunteers are still employed. Reichel, who works part time as a visiting nurse through a home health program, met Pastor David when he visited one of her patients. She said, “For more than eight years, I used to visit senior living facilities with my husband, who is no longer living.” She now ministers in four senior living facilities and, along with another woman, offers a weekly Bible study at the Blue Earth County Jail. She has brought women she met in jail to church with her.

One of the inmates with whom Letourneau continues to connect is 36-year-old Travis Mellen, who served 15 years for committing violent crimes. Mellen said, “Whenever I’m about to do something stupid, Matt has an uncanny sense and gives me a call.”

Letourneau added, “It’s the Holy Spirit. I was driving in my car, praying, and I was told to go see Travis, who at the time was considering suicide. I phoned him then.”

Dorphia and Pastor Jerry David work with senior citizens and also inmates in jail. Contributed photo

Mellen said, “I was two seconds away from doing it, and the phone rang. It was Matt. Then is when I gave up and knew the path I needed to go down.” Mellen, who began attending church, said, “I have to pray about the pain. I grew up in a violent home, and I don’t like the feeling that people are afraid of me. Matt does a lot of counseling with me, and he’s helping me with a job search.”

Letourneau explained, “The continuum of re-entry is like a squiggly line going in the right direction. We try to clear away some of the religious baggage, like ‘I got kicked out of Sunday school.’ We just tell them about Jesus. Broken Chains is a process–Bible study, church, hanging out, going shopping, talking about serious stuff or talking about hardware. Travis now is not the Travis he was four years ago. God changes the heart. Re-entry takes time. We all are broken chains. ”

Currently, 20 trained volunteers, both men and women, minister to about 400 incarcerated men and women each month. Letourneau said. In addition to coming alongside people in a jail with one-on-one visits and Bible studies, we provide re-entry or transition support when people have completed their sentence. They are homeless and jobless, and they still have relationships with a circle of people they shouldn’t be around. They need cell phones, hygiene products, etc. We help with mock interviews, resumes, and connecting with a ‘second chance’ employer and landlord. We also connect them to adult education programs to obtain a GED or a truck driving CDL.”

Letourneau also encourages people to learn more about Gentle Shepherd Ministries. He said, “We have a program called Adopt a Facility. When a church or community group outside of the areas we serve is interested in beginning a program, we will train and direct them as to how to do care in senior facilities.” 

Dorphia David distributes song books at a senior living facility. Contributed photo

In addition to one-on-one visits and weekly church services, Gentle Shepherd Ministries also offers a DVD series of Holy Land trips. Pastor David said, ”People love it. I tell them they don’t need a passport, and they’ll be back home in a half hour. We watch a 20-minute DVD that takes them to various sites in Israel.”

Talking with senior residents helps to address their loneliness, he said. He tells them, “Jesus loves you, and you are more valuable to Him than all the gold, silver and diamonds on earth. God sent His son, Jesus, to die for you, and He is with you always, there to help you.”

At age 65, Pastor David said, “Retirement’s not something I think about.” He plans to continue ministering in senior living facilities and working to provide volunteers to senior facilities and jails throughout Minnesota.

For more information, contact gsm.infaith.org.