Golden Gate Seminary students reach inmates through sports
San Quentin Sports Ministry
“Walking into the yard at San Quentin, you know you’re an outsider,” said Bryan Brown, Golden Gate Seminary student and current leader of the San Quentin Sports Ministry. “Once you start to play the game, you completely forget you’re in a prison and playing with
“It’s like walking into a huge middle school playground,” agreed Sean Donohue, fellow Golden Gate student and 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 recalled. Those in the yard are surrounded by 40 feet high brick walls. Guards are not noticeable. Sean estimated there are probably two guards for the 1,000 inmates in the yard. In addition, there are manned guard towers.
In 2003 Sean was approached by a local pastor about forming a prison basketball team. He held tryouts. “Forty guys tried out and 15 made the team,” he recalled. 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,” recalled Sean. “We would pray together, have powerful conversations and I really put myself out there.” He recruited guys from the Seminary plus a few friends to play against the All Star team. Five years later this ministry has grown to include flag football and softball as well as basketball.
Serving at the prison has been rewarding for the seminary students as well as the inmates. “I saw a flyer about a prison ministry,” recalled Miguel Rodriguez, an MAEL 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 half time someone shares a devotion or testimony from the Word, and after the game we spend 15-20 minutes with the guys.” Sean emphasized that each person finds one man to develop a relationship with over time: asking him about himself, reallycaring and getting involved, developing a pen pal-type relationship with that person.
“If you get into a good conversation during half time, you don’t stop even when the game resumes,” said Bryan, who will 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,” explained Sean, who in addition to being a Seminary student, is a high school pastor at Creekside Community Church in Alamo, California. “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.” He described that half the inmates on the team are older guys from North Block, who are in their 40’s and strong believers, and all have very 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 20’s and
30’s, noted Sean. 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,” Sean 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,” explained Sean. “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 Seminary’s Northern California Campus. It houses over 2,000 inmates and the majority has sentences ranging from twenty 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 Miguel, who is 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 men who are going to play that day greet the students with hugs and handshakes. For many inmates, it is the highlight of their week. “They are thankful for these opportunities to interact with us,” said Bryan. Miguel agreed, “It’s a wonderful, beautiful relationship we are developing, we’re making a family connection.”
Bryan observed, “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.”