Whenever Jake Bodine would drive by a prison, he’d thank God “they” were all in there.

But something changed when three of Jake’s best friends landed behind bars, and he realized all “those people” were people just like him. The only difference, Jake says in this video, was that he didn’t get caught.

Seeing his friends go somewhere he never thought they would made Jake wonder about all the people in prisons across the country who were just like him.

In 2008, Jake was reading the part of the Bible where Jesus talked to His disciples about the future blessing for people who had fed Him when He was hungry and thirsty, clothed Him, visited Him when He was sick or when He was in prison. They would wonder when they had seen Him hungry, unclothed, sick or in prison. And Jesus would answer, “… as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40, ESV).

That made Jake wonder what would happen if church people took Jesus seriously about that visiting people in prison part.

And the idea for God Behind Bars began.

God Behind Bars

“What if the church showed up—I mean really showed up—in our prisons?” Jake asks in a video on the God Behind Bars website.

Jake set out to find the answer to that question. Or maybe be the answer to that question. What he was envisioning was not just a one-time event where speakers come into a prison, talk about Jesus and then leave, without community, without relationships, without any enduring hope. What Jake wanted to start was a weekly relationship-based effort where inmates are treated as real people, not just inmates. Where they’re given the tools they need to succeed both on the inside and on the outside.

Where they feel valued as a person for who they are and not what they’ve done.

So on Christmas Eve of 2009, God Behind Bars launched in its first prison, Florence McClure Women’s Correctional Center in Las Vegas, Nevada. They had no idea what was going to happen.

But women began filling the seats. All 300 of them. They literally had to turn people away because there was no more room that first night. They were blown away. They began singing as part of the service, and Jake says it was louder than anything he had ever witnessed before.

So Jake and his team began to dream even bigger and launched in a second facility, Custer County Jail in Oklahoma, where now over 90% of the inmates attend God Behind Bars.

Today, God Behind Bars is in Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Oklahoma and Texas.

“You gotta be here,” inmate Wesley Collins said in the video on the GBB website, “and feel what it feels like because some mistake that you made, a bad choice that you made, put you here. You can’t explain that loneliness.”

God Behind Bars is working to combat that loneliness. With weekly gatherings, inmates find community, hope and help. And with the God Behind Bars’ initiative, Church Inside, prisons partner with churches who live stream their services right into the correctional center. That way, inmates’ families can watch the same service and join in the same worship as their family member. Currently, Church Inside is available in 28 centers. And one church, Church By The Glades, even refers to the centers as their own campuses.

In the GBB website video, Jake says they hear from wardens that the entire culture of the prison is changing because of the consistent commitment and weekly presence of God Behind Bars.

“When you first come in, the way they greet you, the way they have a smile on their faces,” says one inmate in the God Behind Bars website video. ”They make you feel like they’re just like us.”

“In fact,” Jake’s voice follows. “The most common thing our team hears is that for one hour, they didn’t feel like they were in prison.”

God Behind Bars reports statistics that say 92% of the inmates in America’s prisons will be released back into the public, and 75% will reoffend within three years. So another one of God Behind Bars’ goals is to help people get back on their feet in healthy ways after they’re released: reconnecting them with their families, getting them into local churches, and helping them find jobs and stability.

But they’re getting set free now, even while they’re still in prison. God Behind Bars is introducing them to Jesus. Through the weekly gatherings and regular community groups, God Behind Bars volunteers build sustainable, enduring relationships with inmates, letting them know they’re not forgotten. That there’s hope. And that they’re more than their record.

Because—as a God Behind Bars T-shirt boasts—their stories aren’t over yet.

Neither is yours.