Shel and Louise Jennings
Kingsway Prison and Family Outreach was started in 1977 by Shelton and Louise Jennings as a small “Mom and Pop” prison ministry and food pantry, reaching out in love to those impacted by the criminal justice system. Shel and Louise moved to the Shenandoah Valley in 1975, and started going into prison in 1977 while completing the Industrial Commercial Chaplain Program with the encouragement of a local minister. They operated a food pantry ministry at home in Weyers Cave, which was chartered in 1983 as the nonprofit corporation Kingsway Ministries. They obtained office space in Harrisonburg in 1984, which they called "The People That Love" Center until the office moved in 1993 to a location without space for a food pantry. In 1994, the office moved again, this time to a location which did have space for a food pantry. In 1996, the organization was renamed Kingsway Prison and Family Outreach, allowing others to help fund its efforts. The program has grown exponentially ever since.
“My husband and I founded Kingsway in 1983 after going into a Virginia prison to do Bible Study. We saw a great need. We wanted to help them become better people and succeed once they were released. In our early years we gave them a place to live when they were released. Over a period of 15 years we had over 20 young men live with us during this time. Only two to our knowledge ever returned to prison. My husband died in 2012 and I chose to continue the ministry with some great volunteers, at least two volunteers that have been with me over 15 years. I personally have been in prison ministry for 40 years as of October 2017,” Louise said in an interview.
Kingsway is staffed entirely by volunteers. These dedicated servants perform all functions of running the Kingsway office, including reception duties, record and database maintenance, and financial management; send birthday cards, holiday cards, and letters to currently incarcerated individuals; provide Bibles and study materials to inmates; facilitate church services inside the prisons; assemble and deliver DOC-approved Christmas gifts to inmates on Christmas Eve; provide Christmas gifts to the children of incarcerated parents through the Apple Tree Project; and provide assistance and resources to recently released offenders as they reintegrate into society through the Re-entry Program.
The goal of Kingsway is to help ex-offenders become “clean, sober, and useful tax-paying citizens.” Kingsway’s local office is a resource center for recently released offenders, whom Louise prefers to call “released residents.” Kingsway does not provide housing or financial assistance, but former inmates find volunteers there who will listen to the problems and refer them to other agencies that provide food, clothing, housing, employment training, and counseling. Social workers are contacted for deeper issues as well.
“Prison ministry isn’t for everybody because you will see more failure than success,” says Louise. “In prison, there is always someone to talk to. But when prisoners get out, church is just on Sunday and the general public is too busy. Returning citizens (ex-offenders) can’t find the help they need. But we are seeing positive things happen. People have gotten out to better things in their lives. It is wonderful to see families restored.”
Louise Jennings serves as chaplain for women at the Rockingham-Harrisonburg Regional Jail, seeing them one-on-one on a weekly basis, and visits with the women in the Middle River Regional Jail. Louise also facilitates Bible studies for women inside Fluvanna Correctional Center. Prisoners in state facilities can lead their own Bible studies, but a chaplain or trained volunteer must be present to supervise the meetings. Whether the groups are Christian, Jewish, or of other religions, Kingsway volunteers often provide the necessary meeting supervision to relieve the prison chaplain to focus on other duties.
Set me free from my prison, that I may praise Your name. Then the righteous will gather about me because of Your goodness to me. Psalm 142:7
Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them… Hebrews 13