SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — "Walking into the yard at San Quentin, you know you're an outsider," said Bryan Brown, a student at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary who leads the seminary's San Quentin Sports Ministry.
"Once you start to play the game, you completely forget you're in a prison and playing with inmates."
"It's like walking into a huge middle school playground," said fellow Golden Gate student Sean Donohue, founder of the San Quentin All Stars, a basketball team composed of 12-15 inmates. "There are guys everywhere — jogging, playing baseball, basketball, working out, playing cards, talking — everywhere," he said.
Those in the yard are surrounded by 40-foot-high brick walls. Guards are not noticeable; Donohue estimated there are probably two guards for the 1,000 inmates in the yard. In addition, there are manned guard towers.
In 2003 Donohue was approached by a local pastor about forming a prison basketball team. He held tryouts. Forty inmates tried out and 15 made the team. They practiced on Tuesdays, with games on Saturdays against other San Quentin teams.
"After a year, even though I had moved to a town farther away, I wanted to keep my relationship with these guys," Donohue said. "We would pray together, have powerful conversations and I really put myself out there."
Donohue recruited guys from the seminary plus a few friends to play against the All Stars inmate team. Five years later the outreach has grown to include flag football and softball.
Serving at the prison has been rewarding for the seminarians as well as the inmates. "I saw a flyer about a prison ministry," said Miguel Rodriguez, a master of arts student who has been involved since spring 2006. "At first it was intimidating and a little scary, but the inmates were welcoming, and we could tell God was doing something."
"At halftime, someone shares a devotion or testimony from the Word, and after the game we spend 15-20 minutes with the guys," Donohue said, emphasizing that each person finds one man to develop a relationship with over time: asking him about himself, caring and getting involved and developing a pen pal-type relationship.
"If you get into a good conversation during halftime, you don't stop even when the game resumes," said Brown, who plans to graduate with an M.Div. in May 2009. "It's more important to build a relationship than to play the game — that's the main reason we're there." He added that they always make sure there are extra players available to fill in instead of interrupting a conversation.
"Our focus has shifted over the years," said Donohue, who in addition to being a seminary student is a high school pastor at Creekside Community Church in Alamo, Calif. "Our original goal was to try to connect with all the guys at the same level for the same purposes: to encourage the believers and lead the unsaved guys to Christ. We've come to realize there is a special dynamic in the prison with which we try to be in sync."
Donohue explained that half the inmates on the team are older guys from North Block, who are in their 40s and strong believers, and all have good attitudes. "They treat us well and are respected by everyone in the prison," he said. "Out of 15 guys on the team, eight of them are in this group."
The other guys on the team are younger, ranging in age from their late teens to 20s and 30s. They are recently off the streets, not believers and their attitudes are unpredictable. "The older guys from North Block see this team as a ministry for them too," Donohue said, describing how they share lessons and minister to the younger guys who have come into their world.
"So in our ministry we recognize these older men. We come alongside them rather than make them the focus of our ministry, and we target our ministry to the younger men, which in the end ministers to the older men," Donohue said. "They feel like they are being encouraged and recognized for the men they have become."
San Quentin opened in 1852 just across the bridge from San Francisco and 15 minutes from the Golden Gate's Northern California Campus. It houses more than 2,000 inmates, the majority facing sentences ranging from 20 years to life. Many of the prisoners have been in maximum security facilities for murder-related issues.
"They are hungry for interaction with us," noted Rodriguez, an M.Div. student. "And they minister to us — encouraging us, praying for us. It's amazing how you can feel God's love and His presence even in the prison. It's been one of my favorite things at seminary."
The inmates greet the students with hugs and handshakes upon arrival. For many inmates, it is the highlight of their week. "They are thankful for these opportunities to interact with us," Brown said.
"The San Quentin Sports Ministry has proven to be a great way for seminary students to go into another culture and share the gospel with those who need a relationship with Jesus Christ," Brown added.
Rodriguez agreed, saying, "It's a wonderful, beautiful relationship we are developing; we're making a family connection."
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Evans is director of communications at Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary. For more information: www.ggbts.edu.)