Kathleen Skaar doesn’t remember who made the suggestion, but the idea changed the ministry of Christian Library International (CLI).
CLI had been distributing books in various locations — YMCAs, nursing homes and the like. The ministry had some extra books and workers were trying to decide what to do with them when someone suggested that prison chaplains might like them to give to prisoners.
Skaar is director of CLI, which is located in a wing of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Raleigh.
She said prison chaplains told her the books were “answers to prayer.”
“They were just thrilled,” she said. “Some chaplains said they’d been praying for years and years.”
The ministry had clearly found a need.
“Almost immediately we started getting letters and testimonies from inmates,” Skaar said.
She likened the experience to the admonition in the “Experiencing God” discipleship series to find where God is working and join Him there.
“It was so dramatic where God was working,” Skaar said.
Now CLI is totally focused on prison ministry.
“That’s where we are and that’s where we’ll stay unless God tells us otherwise,” she said.
Faith finds hunger
Skaar said the CLI story begins with her testimony. She grew up in church, but had no personal relationship with Jesus Christ until she attended a retreat in Raleigh in 1995 when she prayed to invite Jesus into her life.
Her life changed. It wasn’t dramatic, she said, but inside she had a thirst and hunger to know God. She read the Bible and Christian books.
“God would just bring the right book to me every time I had a question,” Skaar said.
She thought it would be great if other people had Christian books when they needed them.
“I just wanted to get books in people’s hands,” she said.
In 1996, CLI was born. Skaar’s husband, Anders, joined the ministry full-time in 2002 as mission director.
Now, CLI has sent more than 300,000 books to more than 1,000 prisons and detention centers.
The ministry has sent books to at least one facility in every state and to 88 in North Carolina.
“They go out like missionaries into the prisons,” Skaar said.
Last year, the ministry received more than 2,500 letters from inmates.
“We decided not to let anyone fall through the cracks so we do answer every letter,” she said. Volunteers write letters to the inmates.
“It’s without a doubt the most rewarding volunteer work I’ve ever done,” said Carol Weathersbee, a member at Hillcrest who writes letters.
Norman Beckham, who retired after more than 30 years as an international and North American missionary and was pastor at Hillcrest for six years, also helps at CLI. He said he is impressed by the Skaars and CLI.
“They have a surprisingly small budget but they do so much with it,” he said.
Shipping is the ministry’s biggest expense. Skaar said it costs about $15 to $25 to send a box of books to a chaplain.
Anders Skaar monitors shipping costs to get the best rates. On a recent day, boxes were packed to be shipped to prisons in Washington, Missouri, Texas, Virginia and New York.
“We’re always looking for books,” he said.
The biggest request CLI gets from inmates is large print study Bibles.
The ministry also needs up-to-date Christian youth books for teenagers in detention centers.
Most of the books the ministry sends are “gently used” Christian books, but CLI also buys new Bibles.
Kathleen Skaar tells the story about an inmate who called a donated leather Bible he got from CLI the “best Christmas present” he’d ever received. The inmate is now out of prison and attending Bible college. He spoke at a CLI dinner last year and proudly showed that he takes the Bible with him every time he speaks somewhere.
CLI also offers inmates a free Bible study correspondence course.
“That’s just something the Lord put on my heart,” Skaar said.
Chaplains have told CLI that they need Bible studies to give to inmates. One day Skaar felt a burden to do something about it, so she sat down at the computer and wrote an application. She told volunteers not to put it in every letter but to pray about it and put it in the ones to which they felt led.
When the applications started returning, Skaar, who is 15 hours shy of completing her master of divinity degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, starting writing lessons.
The course now has 15 lessons. When an inmate completes one study, he or she returns it to CLI.
The workers write positive comments about that lesson and send another one. Inmates who complete the course get a certificate.
Last year, more than 150 inmates enrolled in the CLI Leadership Bible Study. An inmate in Texas wrote the ministry to say it had blessed him.
“This study made me think and search my heart,” he said.
Find more information about CLI at www.cli-nc.org or by calling (919) 212-8122.