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In and out of prison

Sunburg man has brought message of hope to inmates across the globe 

He’s been in 75 to 100 prisons around the world providing prison ministry to the inmates in those prisons. That includes one of the oldest prisons in Hungary. That prison was unbelievable according to Dallen Peterson of rural Sunburg. He said it was built several hundred years ago, and it was amazing how these men lived. “It (the prison) was old, there were no windows in the cells. It was basically just a stone building with steel doors.” Peterson has visited with inmates on death row, including death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. This is where they filmed the movie ‘Dead Man Walking.’ The prison, also known as Angola, is nicknamed the ‘Alcatraz of the South’ and is the largest maximum security prison in the United States. “The warden told me he had been there nine years and he had released about 70 inmates and buried over 80.” Peterson said the warden told him that most of the prisoners never get out of prison, they all have life sentences. “It was quite an experience to be in a prison like that.” Before getting into the prison ministry, Peterson and his wife, Glennis, started a coffeehouse for teenagers called the Lighthouse. They held it at their church as a low-key way for teenagers to gather in a healthy atmosphere. Most Friday nights they had about 100 teenagers there. One day they held a car wash to raise money for a trip to Mexico for the kids. Peterson said a young man came to the car wash and was quite taken with their daughter, who finally agreed to go out with him but only if they went where she wanted to go. Their destination was the Lighthouse where he met her parents. Peterson said this young man was one of     the dozens of kids who hung out regularly at their house. What they didn’t know about him was that he was addicted to drugs and supporting his habit by burglarizing homes in their neighborhood. Eventually this young man stopped hanging around and Peterson kind of forgot about him, until he got a letter from him saying he had been arrested, convicted, sent to prison for burglary, that he had smuggled drugs into the prison, been caught selling them to other inmates and been thrown into solitary confinement. In the letter, he told Peterson he was full of remorse and shame and had serious questions about his relationship with God. That, Peterson said, is what started him on his prison ministry work. Peterson asked the prison for permission to visit the young man, and three weeks later was on his way to the Nebraska State Penitentiary, accompanied by a friend of his. “My first sight of the institution fit the pictures I had in my mind from old movies. The prison’s high wire fences were ringed on top with spirals of jagged razor wire. I could see officers in the high guard towers, and it chilled me to think that they were armed, ready to fire if need be.” While visiting with the young man and another inmate, they brought up the idea of weekly Bible study meetings in the prison. Peterson contacted the prison chaplain and the Bible study meetings began. Peterson went to this prison Friday nights for 12 to 15 years. “That led to my meeting Chuck Colson, who is with prison fellowship and who was President Nixon’s ‘hatchet man.’” Peterson said he had followed the Watergate scandal and the demise of President Nixon’s administration, and he had followed Colson’s notorious career and his widely publicized Christian conversion, and was eager to hear him speak. Colson was to speak at a Mayor’s Prayer Breakfast and Peterson planned to attend. Peterson said he was impressed with Colson, but they didn’t do anything until much later. “I continued to conduct these Friday night Bible studies. We had upwards of 100 men coming so it got to be a pretty big thing.” Peterson said his friend that accompanied him to these Bible studies played guitar, which was a great icebreaker. They’d sing scripture songs and study the word. Peterson said the inmates were enthusiastic, hungry to know more about God and hungry for change in their lives.     They weren’t able to reach everyone, however. “Some of the inmates had hard hearts that just would not open to love, even divine love. But many of them listened to the gospel and their hearts broke open, they received the love of God and their lives were changed forever.” It wasn’t until the late 70s when Peterson and Colson joined forces with prison fellowship, and in about 1990 Peterson began serving on the board of Prison Fellowship at Colson’s invitation. Peterson has also written a book talking about his life and his prison ministry and in that book Colson wrote the foreword, saying Peterson has been a friend of his for 25 years, and has left a lasting impression on him because of his compassion for the downtrodden.     “We shared a commitment to men and women in prison and our friendship grew.” Peterson said he’s been in prisons all around the country with Colson. For the last 30 years they’ve spent their Easter Sundays in prisons. “We’ve been in 40 to 50 different prisons together over the years on Easter Sundays. We visit death row almost always when we’re in prison.” It’s really amazing, Peterson said, you have every attitude among the prisoners, and at one visit on death row, one young man amazed Peterson. “He was 18 years old and he had obviously committed murders…he was a good looking, clean cut, black man. I spent some time with him, I was trying to find out what brought such a young man into prison. After we visited for a while I said ‘Mike, how did you end up here?’ He said ‘well I got in with the wrong guys, I did wrong things and here I am.’” Peterson said he’s had all kinds of different experiences in prison with people like this. He and his wife went on a mission trip to Uganda and Rwanda and while there he visited death row inmates at a prison. “These men were just in rags and none of them had shoes. There were 25 men in one cellblock no bigger than my living room, all on death row. There wasn’t even room for all of them to sleep at one time, and there was no toilet. They had to go outside and the toilet consisted of a hole in the ground.” Peterson said it made him sick to see someone having to live like that. “It was one of the worst prisons I’ve ever been in and I’ve been in a lot of them.” But what was amazing, he said, was some of the men’s spirits were great.    “A lot of them in there didn’t even know what the charges against them were yet, that’s kind of the way it is over there, in Uganda especially. Most of them don’t know from day to day if they were going to be put to death on any given day.” Peterson said he never did ask how they were put to death but believes its by hanging. “We have a presence there with Christian ministry and it was amazing to me how the men responded to us.” He said they were so happy to see Americans. “Their meal consisted of ground up corn, including the cob and the husk. I asked one of the guards about that. He said there’s more nutrition in the whole cob of corn then in just the corn itself.” When you’re hungry I guess you can eat it, Peterson said. In Uganda, the prisoners have no visitors. “That’s why they were so happy to see us. Most of them over there, once they’re in prison, their families kind of reject them. It is a stigma.” Peterson said he could go on and on about his different experiences over the last 30 years. “It’s amazing to me, how these men, when they come to know the Lord so to speak, they’re happy. We had a service with them when we were in Uganda and it was really humbling to me to see how they reacted.” Peterson said he’s never been in any prison he’d describe as a country club. “But by comparison I’d have to say our prisoners are treated much more humane than they are in some of those third world countries.”

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