WESTOVER — A unique form of pandemic anxiety hit home recently with 69-year-old Leon Bivens, a minister with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Westover.
After devoting the past 35 years to a prison ministry in the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, COVID-19 shut down his weekly visits to inmates who were interested in learning about the Bible’s message of hope.
When the pandemic forced a lockdown of the facility in March 2020, Bivens thought it might be the end of the program. “I wondered who was going to take care of the inmates who were studying the Bible,” he said. However, with the cooperation of Correctional Services, things slowly started to take a positive turn when inmates were allowed to make longer phone calls. “That was unexpected good news,” said Bivens.
“A crackling, static-peppered phone call never sounded so good,” Bivens said, a smile stretching from ear to ear. When Bivens answered a call from the Eastern Correctional Institution, on the other end was an inmate he had been teaching by correspondence since July 2021. The two now study the Bible twice a week over the phone.
Prison rules don’t allow inmate Bible students to place calls outside their scheduled rotations. This required Bivens to adjust his schedule to study with some inmates late at night. “We have to be adaptable and flexible since their call times vary,” he said.
When the pandemic hit, most U.S. prisons were placed on lockdown, including ECI, temporarily ending a robust Bible education program conducted by Bivens and other ministers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The program included weekly Bible-based discourses, audience discussions, individual Bible study lessons, and video presentations.
Our concern was for them,” said Dan Houghton, who helps coordinate the efforts of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ correctional facility ministry in the U.S. “They needed us more now than ever. They were cut off from their lifeline of spiritual feeding.”
Within weeks of the onset of the pandemic in March 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses pivoted their in-person ministry and activities around the country to virtual meetings, letters, telephone calls and videoconferencing. “These changes have reaped amazing and unexpected results,” said Houghton.
Bivens, who has been part of the prison ministry since 1987, said he is regularly surprised at the positive impact Bible education can have on a prison inmate’s life. “Many have made positive changes in their lives and are sharing what they have learned with others, including prison guards,” Bivens said.
One bible student inmate whom Bivens has never met in person said, “What I am learning makes so much sense.” Bivens said he is looking forward to the day they can meet face-to-face. “It’s going to be an emotional occasion,” he said. “It is so encouraging to see the changes they are making when the value of Bible truths come to life in them.”
“Jehovah’s Witnesses value life,” said Houghton. “It’s their compelling motivation to proactively produce videos, supply literature, write letters — whatever it takes to reach inmates with the Bible’s message. Houghton added, “Some people might say, ‘They’re just prisoners.’ But that’s not how we view them. We love these people.