Local ministry uses sports as a means of deeper connection

More than 30 years ago, a nonprofit was humbly started at Moorestown Bible Church (now HOPE Community Church). Today, Saints Prison Ministry is the largest athletic prison ministry in the country.

The ministry operated for 15 years out of HOPE Community Church before moving to a business park up the road in Hainesport. But to this day, nearly 32,000 inmates send letters to the ministry’s P.O. box in Moorestown.

“We are a prison ministry, but we don’t do what most people would think of when you think of prison ministry,” said the nonprofit’s Executive Director Frank Zeidler. 

While bible study might be the vision that comes to mind, Saints Prison Ministry takes quite a different approach. Saints takes volunteer softball, basketball, volleyball and soccer teams into prisons and connects with the prison population through athletics. 

According to Zeidler, current studies indicate that 80 percent of the inmate population won’t go to formal church services or bible study. At Saints, they’ve found sports to be an effective tool for engaging inmates. 

“Sports is a great communicator; it’s really effective for bridging the gap,” Zeidler explained.

Saints athletic — or “crusade” teams — are made up entirely of volunteers who have been properly vetted and have a good sense of sportsmanship. Volunteers don’t argue with the referees, nor do they get angry or hostile if their team is losing. 

But they’re also talented athletes, according to Zeidler, who said they approach each game with the desire to play hard and to win. Saints currently has six teams who operate out of the Hainesport office and five that operate in other parts of the country. The Jersey teams travel to prisons anywhere within a three-hour distance, taking them to locations in New Jersey, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland.

Typically, they’ll play the inmate team for half a game, pause to discuss their ministry and the Gospel of Jesus Christ and then return to the second half of the contest. Zeidler noted that the inmates are receptive to the ministry message because they aren’t being preached to.

Instead, the volunteers have already taken the time to show they’re real and genuine  through the first half of the game. 

“They just want someone to talk to, someone to care,” Zeidler related. “A lot of what we do is based in respect.”

At times, it is difficult getting the second half of the game started because the inmates are more interested in speaking with volunteers. Zeidler said they overwhelmingly get positive feedback, and many of the prisons the ministry visits invite them back.

Saints’ volunteers also keep in touch after they leave, sending the inmates they meet a card each year on their birthdays. Zeidler believes the cards can make all the difference in brightening the day of someone who might not otherwise receive mail or have contact with the outside world.

The director of prison ministries also responds to every single piece of mail received at the Moorestown P.O. box.

“That concern is what sets us apart,” Zeidler said.

Saints Prison Ministry is always seeking volunteers. To learn more or to contact the ministry, visit https://www.saintsprisonministry.org/