CLARKS SUMMIT — You could fill a small American state with the population of prisoners incarcerated in the country.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2013 Correctional Populations bulletin, at the end of that year a total of 2,220,300 people were incarcerated in local jails and state prisons — that’s about midway between the state populations of New Mexico and Nevada.
But it isn’t only the number of prisoners in the United States that pulls on the hearts of Jamie and Julie Overholser, both 48, of Clarks Summit. It is also the hopeless condition of loneliness in which many of those inmates dwell.
“We’re finding that in most cases — in almost all cases — the prisoners’ family and friends walk away from them,” Julie Overholser said. “They will not stay by their side. So, these 2.3 million people who are incarcerated have no one in their lives, no one reaching out to them to say, ‘God is not finished with you yet,’ ‘We believe in you,’ ‘There is redemption through Jesus Christ’ and ‘You have a purpose.’”
That is why, although the couple said they never intended to start a prison ministry, they found themselves doing just that.
It all started in September 2012 with the incarceration of a friend. Desiring to encourage the friend, Julie, who is a photographer, typed a verse of scripture over one of her original photographs, printed it and mailed it to him.
“Within a week, we received a letter back saying how much it meant to him and that he had hung it on the wall of his cell using prison toothpaste,” she said.
She encourages others with friends and family members in jail or prison not to abandon them.
“If you know someone, a friend, a co-worker, a brother or a dad, who is incarcerated, please write to them,” she said. They need you. Most families walk away from their incarcerated family member, and yet that is exactly opposite of what Jesus would do. He said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ He said, ‘I have not come to call the healthy, but the sinners to repentance.’ He said, ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love.’”
She advises if you don’t know what to say to them, start with, “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I am thinking about you.”
That first simple “WORDpicture,” as she now calls them, led to another and another. Today, she has between 150 to 200 made, all combining her photographic artwork with various scripture verses that apply especially to people behind bars. For example, one shows a picture of sand sifting through an hour glass, with words of scripture from Psalm 31:14,15, “But I trust in you, O Lord; I say, ‘You are my God. My time is in your hands.’”
All the WORDpictures are printed in full color.
“What we began to see is that there’s a huge need for color art behind prison walls,” she said. “They see enough gray, steel and drab to last a lifetime.”
WORDpictures, greeting cards and trading cards can be purchased on The WORDpictured website, in small quantities or in bulk, at wordpictured.com. Proceeds go right back into printing additional cards to send to more prisoners.
To date, over 3,000 of the cards were mailed to inmates in 11 different correctional institutions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
“And that’s just from word of mouth,” Jamie Overholser said, explaining that as they reached out to that first imprisoned friend, he realized he knew another person in the county jail whom he needed to start visiting as well.
“It was through these two contacts that we kind of kept going and realized that they had guys that they could recommend to be part of this program,” he said.
In the fall of 2013, the couple started the faith-based ministry Bound Together, named after a portion of the scripture verse, Hebrews 13:3, which says, “Remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” (King James Version)
They asked members of their church, The Gathering, in Fleetville, of which Jamie is pastor, to each “adopt” a prisoner on their list. Those who chose to participate sent their adopted prisoner a Christmas card, along with a Christian book and small monetary gift to his prison commissary account. That first year, 26 prisoners were sponsored. Last Christmas, that number rose to 106, with four area churches participating.
The ministry is a branch of the Clarks Summit-based non-profit organization The Jacob Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation, of which Jamie is also founder and director. It does not formally cooperate or work with the county, state or federal government prison systems. Rather, all contacts with the prisoners are made on a personal individual basis.
Until this point, the organization only had contacts with male inmates, but the Overholsers hope to soon expand to reach out to women as well, and are following leads to that end. Another of their goals for the near future is to involve more local churches in adopting prisoners this Christmas. They hope to begin compiling their list of inmates for the holiday program next month.
Ultimately, however, their goal for the ministry is to “just let it expand and progress as God wants it to.”
Their purpose isn’t merely about the numbers, but about making a difference in each individual’s life.
In the words of one prisoner at the closing of a letter to the Overholsers, “Well, take care and remember — mail matters.”
“None of us want to be judged for who we were 10 years ago or 20 years ago,” Julie Overholser said. “We all have addictions, we all have things in our life that we wish we would have done differently. And these people are no different, and they are not who they were when they were incarcerated. So we want to believe in them and help them work through this part in their journey. Nothing is ever too much for God. He is always willing to transform us and make us into new people.”