Volunteering through the storms of change

The phone rings in Sylvia Barnes’s apartment one morning, and she recognizes the number. It’s the WELS Prison Ministry Mailing Center in New Ulm, Minn., where she has volunteered for nearly 20 years. “Hello, dear,” she answers. “Are you calling with bad news?”

This has happened on snowy days multiple times the last 20 years. Sylvia’s volunteer time on Tuesday morning was in jeopardy because of blizzards and large amounts of snow. She has always dreaded that phone call when the forecast was bad because she loves volunteering at the Prison Ministry office and loves the people with whom she works. Now at 96 ½ years old, she says, “If everyone wasn’t so nice here, I probably wouldn’t still be coming.” A family of Christian volunteers has been created on those Tuesday mornings, even though so much has changed over the years. Sylvia remembers that Tuesday morning volunteer family being so much larger 20, even 10 years ago. Most of the volunteers she worked with all those years ago have now gone to heaven, and she even surprises herself – and many of her friends – that she continues to go. “It’s interesting…when I tell them I’m still volunteering, they don’t believe me,” she says with a smile.

Sylvia has volunteered at Prison Ministry through much change. She was part of the volunteer family when the first WELS Prison Ministry administer, Mr. Dave Nack, suddenly passed away. She stuck around through the years of change that followed. She made it through the shutdown during COVID, and as more change has happened with the ministry, she has adjusted her schedule to fit the ministry’s needs. Even though Sylvia is no longer driving, she arrives to the Prison Ministry office with other volunteer friends willing to pick her up.

Sylvia and our other volunteers continue to serve our brothers and sisters in prison through all the changes because of one thing that does not change. The never-changing Word of God and the promises of God to forgive all sin – even the sins of those in prison – is what drives us to continue the work he commanded: Go and make disciples of all nations. Sylvia shares that one of her favorite things, and what drives her to continue to work through the changes, are the comments from the inmates on their tests.

Professions of faith from those in prison help her see the difference she is making as part of the Prison Ministry family. God is reaching souls through the work we are doing, and that’s what makes the snow-stormy days when we can’t do our work frustrating. We continue to pray for good weather days, days when Sylvia and others can share the good news of Jesus with the incarcerated.