Ministry to prisoners, expatriates creates training ground for gospel expansion into difficult countries

Captive audiences in the Pacific Rim are finding freedom in Christ and taking that newfound freedom worldwide through a prison ministry led by Texans Roy and Doris Burson.

Roy Burson, a retired police officer, said, “Even if you had told me 10 years ago that I’d be working in a prison, I would have laughed at you. No way was I going to work in prisons … I used to put people in prisons!”

The Lord had different plans for Burson, however. Using correspondence courses with prisoners, personal visits and discipleship classes, the International Mission Board missionary couple has shared the gospel with people from more than 37 countries and from six continents.

The first time the Bursons went into a prison it was just to visit, and “even as a former police officer I felt a little uncomfortable going into a [Pacific Rim] prison,” Roy Burson admitted in an interview with the Southern Baptist TEXAN while visiting Texas over the Christmas holiday.

Although they interact daily with convicted thieves, murderers, drug traffickers and kidnappers, they have “never felt threatened or endangered,” Doris Burson said. “You just look at them like other people; you don’t look at them like prisoners.”

“You develop a relationship with them. They’re not any worse than any other person, they’ve just made some worse choices … and are paying the consequences of that,” Roy Burson said.

Retired IMB missionary Jack Martin started the prison ministry 35 years ago and it grew larger every year, Roy Burson said. “When we started we were allowed into one prison. As doors opened we’d go into another prison. Now they are able to go into nearly 70 prisons,” Martin said.

When the Bursons met the Martins they were primarily doing “English work, but started getting involved in prison ministry and [eventually] took over the correspondence courses,” Martin said.

“The Bursons [are] always ready and willing to further the kingdom work, no matter the method. They are multi-talented people who will lead or happily follow another’s leadership. Their hearts are to serve the [people in the Pacific Rim], expatriates and their fellow missionaries,” said Deidre Cotton, IMB associate missionary to the Pacific Rim.

Every week the Bursons visit at least two prisons and spend countless hours writing letters, preparing lessons and sermons.

“It would be hard for me to do what they do. God definitely called them to do it and they love doing it,” said Bill Hawes, friend of the Bursons and CEO and founder of Puppet Productions. “We have a lot of missionaries who are very effective, but Roy and Doris are the stars over there,” Hawes said.
It is heartening, he added, to see prisoners who are hungry for Scripture.

There are as many as 700 actively taking the correspondence classes, although “some share the lessons with each other, which makes it hard to say exactly how many are taking the classes,” Doris Burson said.

Class participants are sent Bible lessons, a Bible and stamped envelopes to send back to the Bursons.

“Isaiah 55:11 is a verse that we depend on,” Doris Burson said.

“Most are hopeless and have no hope. The Bible gives them hope,” Roy Burson added.

“Some spend incredible time in Scripture—they can quote entire books,” Doris Burson said.

In 10 of the prisons they visit, Roy Burson teaches one-on-one discipleship classes with as many as 25 students a year.

“We pick out the mature students, the ones who are getting out in two to three years, and train them how to start churches when they return home” Roy Burson explained. Students learn to prepare sermons, baptize and administer the Lord’s Supper.

To be a member of the discipleship class Burson asks his students to commit three things. First, they commit to read through the Bible in one year.

“We give them a plan and read through the same time they do,” Roy Burson said. Second, they commit to pray every day.

“We encourage them to pray for their family, themselves, the church in the prison they’re in, five men who don’t know the Lord—pray that they come to know the Lord—and for two names of people whom they’ll teach what I teach them,” Roy Burson explained.

He also teaches the prisoners to pray for the prison guards, The final commitment is to attend church and to complete their lessons.

The Bursons do their best, they said, to keep in touch with released prisoners. A male prisoner wants to do prison ministry when he returns home, another a former Muslim, returned home boldly proclaiming his faith in Christ, knowing that his boldness may result in his death, Roy Burson said.

“They are able to go back into countries we cannot get into,” he said.

He recalled a time when a male prisoner told him that he was the first person in his village to become a Christian, and that he planned to go back and tell them about Jesus. “We work with some of the giants of the faith … [Their willingness] to sacrifice [their faith] could cost them their life and their cultural identity,” Roy Burson said.

A website is being developed where former prisoners will have access to materials that will encourage them and help them minister in their home country.

“We are grateful for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, and the Cooperative Program that help support us. We appreciate the sacrificial giving,” the Bursons said.

They asked for people to pray for continued opportunities to enter the prisons and share the gospel.

They are only allowed to enter a prison if a warden allows them to visit. Much of their time is spent traveling through the country visiting prisons; the farthest city is a 10-hour trip from their home.

“When people pray we see things happen that have no explanation other than God answered prayers,” Roy Burson said.

There are many opportunities for groups or individuals to help minister in the Pacific Rim.

“Although their emphasis [the Bursons] is prison ministry and ours [the Cottons] is primarily medical, we enjoy stepping out of our daily roles to assist in each others’ ministries as we have time,” Cotton said. “Although the Pacific Rim believers are talented, willing workers, finding enough ministry helpers in a country with only one half of 1 percent of the population Christian is not always easy,” Cotton said.

Short-term teams may prayer-walk, distribute gospel tracts, encourage prisoners during visitation and teach English classes.

“We would love to have teams go over there, especially singing groups,” Martin said.

Churches or individuals interested in being a prayer partner or going on a mission trip to the Pacific Rim may contact the Bursons at burson@mailcentral.biz.

TEXAN Correspondent
Stacey Billger
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