Member Spotlight: John and Catherine Plasterer, Greater Baltimore Jail and Prison Ministry
Jaclyn Lewis · Mar 01, 2015
John Plasterer always wanted a house and a hobby farm out in the country to give his kids the same childhood that he’d enjoyed. But he says, “God had better plans.”
Instead, God enabled John to follow his passion for farming by “sowing the seed of the Word” as a full-time missionary to both the adult and juvenile inmates of the Baltimore City Detention Center. John leads Greater Baltimore Jail and Prison Ministry with the support of his wife, Cathy, and the help of his five children: Stephen, Susan, Emily, Hannah, and Elizabeth.
We asked John a few questions about his life and ministry, and we hope you will be blessed to read his answers as he tells you, in his own words, about how God led him to work with inmates in Baltimore.
Q: How did you become a Christian?
I grew up in a good Christian home where the entire family attended church regularly, my father read the Bible to us daily, and all of us read the Bible on our own daily. At the age of 9, after listening to an Unshackled radio drama, I realized that I was a sinner and that Jesus suffered and died for my sins, not just for other people’s sins.
Q: Did you ever have any doubts about your faith?
Although I never stopped the Bible reading and church attendance, I adopted some godless philosophies, such as belief in evolution, that undermined my faith. After graduation from high school I worked for a while, but longed for a deeper relationship with God and knowledge of how to witness to others.
I decided to enroll in a one-year program at Word of Life Bible Institute. This year of intensive study helped me sort through and correct some of the things that had undermined my faith, and I began to think Biblically in all areas of my life. The Christian service that was part of the program caused me to grow deeper in my faith. I was especially interested in learning how to explain the Gospel of Christ’s death and resurrection to people who do not know Christ.
Q: After completing Bible college, what was the transition into full-time missionary service like?
After one year, the school teaching job that I worked after graduating ended because of low enrollment. I did a variety of jobs to support my wife and children while still considering missions opportunities and looking for a way to move out of the city to a more rural setting.
During a time of unemployment, I sought out some of my mentors in street evangelism and worked with them for a day of ministry. That day was so invigorating that I began working on starting a street evangelism ministry in Baltimore and teaching children in Bible clubs and neighborhoods using a chronological approach.
God had closed the door to many of the mission opportunities I had pursued, but providentially opened the door for the street evangelism endeavor by enabling me to gradually transition from my job into full-time ministry. I was able to reduce the hours of my work week to four days, and later to three days per week, and still provide for my family financially while beginning the inner-city children’s work.
The transition to full-time ministry came when several church groups asked me to assist them as they planned to come to Baltimore on a mission trip to conduct a week-long outreach in a neighborhood. I sought the direction of the elders of my church, because I had come to the conviction that any career ministry worker should in some way be an outgrowth of and accountable to a local church, since that is the God-ordained structure of ministry.
I left my part-time job to pursue this opportunity, not knowing if it would be just for the summer or longer term. Some other Christians had heard about my work and began supporting it while I still worked a part-time job. Once I was working full-time in this ministry, God’s people supported me to a greater extent.
That was March 1999, and I have been able to remain in full-time evangelistic ministry since that time.
Q: What is a “chronological approach” to teaching the Bible, and why did you decide to use it?
I learned from tribal missionaries that starting with teaching the story of creation, the fall of man, and the other Bible history stories clearly defines who God is and why the promised Savior was needed. I have since learned that this chronological approach works well with all people, even highly-educated adults and people who have been exposed to nominal Christianity but have no real faith or relationship with God.
In teaching chronologically, I try to follow the example of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, Who started with Moses and all the prophets and expounded to the disciples all the things concerning Himself (Luke 24:27).
Q: How did God lead you into jail ministry?
My involvement in jail ministry began as a Bible study. Ironically, I had called the jail and, after a long runaround, I was told they had enough people doing ministry already. Not long after that, a chaplain called our church from the same jail, asking me to visit an inmate from the neighborhood around our church and invite him to come to church upon release.
When I arrived, I discovered I had already met the man from my street ministry; he had lived in a drug house near our church. He never did come to our church, but the chaplain invited me to begin a Bible study in the jail.
That first Bible study gradually led to all the other activities that today are a full-time jail ministry.
As I started that first Bible study, I discovered that, in spite of what I was told, there was a need for more Bible studies. Some officers asked me to visit their dorms, too, and within weeks I was visiting each of the five dorms in that building every week for Bible study.
Q: Was it difficult to leave children’s street ministries?
On several occasions in those early years, I discovered that an inmate in my Bible study was the father of a child I knew from my ministry in the projects. This gave me peace in transitioning out of street and children’s ministry because I was reaching street people in the jail and reaching children by restoring fathers to their homes as godly leaders.
I have since observed that the inmates who come to Christ in repentance and faith nearly always are burdened about their families as a first priority for getting things right.
Q: Besides the need for Bible studies, what was another need you discovered among the inmates?
Nearly all of the men who came to the Bible study needed Bibles. The jail authorities permitted me to bring in Bibles each week and some devotional reading materials to leave with the men. Many men were saying that they had already been there for six or eight weeks in the booking and intake building with no access to Bibles or teaching. This is regarded as a transitional area and therefore very few classes are offered there, but I asked permission to distribute Bibles to the incoming inmates.
When I was finally granted permission a year later, an officer said, “Oh, we have not had Bibles here for about a year.” I carried in one box full of Bibles; men in a dorm came over and took them so quickly that sometimes two men grabbed the same Bible. The officer there said, “You can’t come in here and give out Bibles unless you have enough for everyone; it might cause a fight.”
The following week I returned with three large boxes of New Testaments on a luggage carrier and gave out all of them. I returned the following week with three more boxes of New Testaments, and the same officer that had told me to bring in enough for everyone told me to stop bringing in so many Bibles. Eventually I discovered that about 100 Bibles per week was sufficient for the constant flow of inmates into the institution. God raised up donors to supply this constant need for Bibles.
I have often been blessed to find men who have read through the entire Bible while incarcerated, sometimes in a matter of months. It is also a blessing to discover men who have come to faith in Christ as Savior through reading things, and sometimes through other inmates. The Bible reading coaching from my parents at home and the chronological Bible teaching I learned to use in my Bible clubs proved very effective in encouraging those reading through the Bible. Chronological teaching also equips the believers to defend the faith against errors propagated by other religions.
Q: What is some of the fruit you’ve seen through jail ministry?
It is especially encouraging to me to see men transformed by Christ who have been labeled as hopeless. There are several individuals who for years had been constantly in and out of jail who have been out walking in freedom for years because of Christ. Others have re-established family relationships that had been shattered.
Prison and jail ministry was nothing I ever imagined I would do; I just took advantage of the opportunities as the Lord brought them to me. God has enabled me to fulfill my desire for farming through sowing the seed of the Word, and I have come to understand that a hobby farm in the country would have been a distraction.
Q: Has it been difficult raising your family in Baltimore?
Although at times the undesirable aspects of the city and the evil I witness in the jail wear on me, the Lord has given me peace in this setting. My children help as well in the ministry, filling the gap wherever help is needed. Presently my daughters do almost all of the work with my student database such as recording grades and assigning and mailing courses.
I have also experienced God’s hedge of protection about myself and my wife and children as we have been relatively untouched by the evil that surrounds us. When news headlines reported a federal investigation in 2013 that exposed a conspiracy between officers and gang members in the Baltimore City Detention Center, many people asked if I felt safe there. My motto has been Psalm 116:6-7, “The LORD preserves the simple; I was brought low, and He saved me. Return to your rest, O my soul, for the LORD has dealt bountifully with you.”
God has also blessed our relationship with many of our neighbors so that our children learned to serve people in ways that they might not have learned in a more rural setting.
Q: How might Christians start serving prisoners in their local area?
Every jail has opportunities for churches to come in to minister to inmates. Jails and prisons are required by law to make “reasonable accommodation” for the inmates’ free exercise of religion. Many jails have strict rules about bringing in books and pamphlets, but nearly all jails and prisons will allow inmates to receive Bibles and attend some kind of religious service.
If you attempt to teach or distribute Bibles there and are turned away, be patient and persistent. Correctional institutions, by necessity, take on a culture like little totalitarian societies. Anyone serving there should keep in mind that these institutions exist to attempt to manage unruly people. The rules in correctional institutions often seem strange or unreasonable to outsiders but usually exist for very good reasons.
If the jail or prison administrators are being unreasonable, the inmates have ways to defend their rights such as filing grievances, but volunteers should pray for the authorities and refrain from bucking the system.
You can reach John Plasterer through email or at Greater Baltimore Jail and Prison Ministry, P.O. Box 47476, Baltimore, MD 21244.