Denis Jacobs "Prison Ministry & The Prodigal Son" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen, Now and Then. Our goal at the society is to extend the rich spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts and our free, daily meditations with your friends and family. Through them, we can continue to introduce new audiences to the writings and the teachings of Henri Nouwen, and we can remind each listener that they’re a beloved child of God.
Now, let me take a moment to introduce you to today’s guest. In December of 2022, I received an email from a man in South Africa who shared with me the profound impact [Henri’s book] The Return of the Prodigal Son was having in his ministry. Denis Jacobs lives in Johannesburg, South Africa. He’s the founder of John Israel Ministries, and his primary ministry is to preach in prison. Currently, he heads up a ministry to the maximum-security section of the prison, where he’s using The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. Of course, Denis has lots of experience of working in the prison setting, because he’s taught the Alpha course in this prison for the past nine years.
Denis, welcome to Henri Nouwen, Now and Then.
Denis Jacobs: Thank you. It’s wonderful, just such a blessing to speak to you. You know, we’ve spoken a few times, but I’m just so excited for what God’s doing in this relationship. So, I’m just so filled with joy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Karen Pascal: Denis, let’s take people back and let them know how this friendship began. We’ve been friends for a year and a half, and it started with a letter from you. I could even quote what you wrote me, because it was so exciting: “I want to share the story of what we’ve experienced with The Return of the Prodigal Son in our prison ministry. It’s been a blessing and a joy. I was hoping that sharing this joy with you would be an encouragement to continue your work, to go further and higher, not limiting yourselves to what has already been achieved. I wanted you to know that lives have been changed by the gospel message woven into Henri’s writing, the painting and the parable that our Jesus left to remind us to come home, to trust, and to be grateful, and ultimately to surrender to Christ.”
You know, I gave that message to our board. Everybody was so excited, and I reached back to you to say thank you, and that’s kind of where our conversations began. Take me back through that.
Denis Jacobs: Well, I think even just as we. . . I’m a bit teary just listening to that, because I don’t think that I wrote that email – it was a Friday morning. I was getting ready to do the last session of the teaching that we are now talking about, of the Prodigal Son. And I was thinking about what other Henri Nouwen book I could use to teach further. And I went onto your website to go look for another book and saw a “contact us” button and thought, “Oh, I should just tell you what’s going on.”
And so, I wrote that email. Probably took me five minutes, and I didn’t read that email again until last week. Somebody asked me for a copy of it, and I don’t think I could write that email again. You know, it’s the way that the Lord works, and the way that the Holy Spirit works is that there’s certain times where he will just inspire you to do something that’s so beyond anything that you’re capable of. And I think that’s the story of this.
And, you know, going back to the start of it, if I can share how we started it? So, I’ve been working at a maximum-security prison for, it’s going on for about 12 years now. Every time I tell people 10 years, I’m reminded that time doesn’t stop, you know? And I’d been doing the Alpha course at the prison for many years, and I got to a point where I wanted to teach other material to the prisoners. They were very hungry. And I’ve built up such a wonderful relationship. They really are my best friends, you know, in the prison. I just really love them. They know this. I tell them this all the time. So, I was praying to the Lord and I said, “Lord, I don’t want to teach something from myself. It’s not about me or what I want to do.”
I love teaching people. I love speaking about Jesus. Even as I’m saying his name now, I’m so in love with Jesus. It’s a gift that I was given when I was born again. So, I was asking the Lord, “What can I do?”
And so, on the day that we finished our last Alpha course. . . I had a very good friend, Anne, who’s this – and she won’t mind me. The way that I talk about her is the way I talk to her – is a wonderful, little Polish lady in her eighties. And she is one of the most amazing prison ministry team members I’ve ever had. And as we’re walking out, she gave me this envelope with my name on it, big A4 white envelope. And I took the envelope. And I was so busy, to be honest, probably praying to the Lord to send me a sign, you know? And she gave me this envelope in my hand. I put it into my car, and I forgot about it for about two weeks. It just lay in the car. I didn’t even open it. (And I did ask her to forgive me, afterwards. She did forgive me.)
And then about two weeks after that, now I continue to pray: “Lord, please. I’m not going back there. I’m not teaching anything until you show me the way. I want to know what you want me to teach them.”
And I continued to pray. About two weeks after that, I took this envelope out of the car, still didn’t open it, and I put it onto a coffee table in my lounge in front of me. And as it happened, about three weeks after that, I was sitting on my couch, in my lounge, looking at this white envelope, and praying and saying, “Lord, please, I’ve got to start next week, but I don’t know what to teach.” And there I see this envelope with my name on it: Denis Jacobs. It’s not even somebody else. It’s a clear sign, you know, it’s like, “Open this and not another envelope, the one that I’ve sent to you.”
Anyway, so I opened this envelope, and inside was a letter from Anne, just a beautiful letter, where she just told me a number of really wonderful things about what was happening with her and what was happening with this prison ministry. And just a real encouragement. And then I dipped back into the envelope and there was an AF poster of the Rembrandt, which I have, it’s in front of me at the moment. It’s on my wall. I stare at it all day. In fact, the son’s feet are at my eye line, and it goes up to the ceiling.
And I looked at this picture, and I mean, I was intrigued. I went to art school when I finished school. I went to art school for a year and a bit to do industrial design. And I love art; I’m an artist. So, I sat and stared at this picture, and then I went back into the envelope and there was Henri’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. And then, I mean, I didn’t even . . . I’m so, “God is so good,” because I’m so oblivious to what he’s doing that I don’t even realize he’s answering. I’m still praying about what to teach, and I’ve got the book in my hand. And I started reading this book, and I think I got through the half of the first section, on the son. And Henri was speaking about himself, you know, and I just felt my spirit testifying. It was as though the Holy Spirit was right there with me, saying, “Teach this, teach this, take this to them,” because the story that Henri was telling, it was like he was telling my story, as the gospel becomes our story.
And I mean, to be honest, you know me now, but I was in tears because I was so convicted in that moment. And so, what I did was I got up on that Sunday morning and I decided, no, I’m going to put a course together for these men that I pastor in the prison. And that’s how it started. I took each of the three parts, split them into two each. So, two for the youngest son, two for the older, and two for the father. Wrote a bit of an intro and did the intro session where [Anne] spoke. She loves Henri, she loves his work. She subsequently gave me other books. She slips him into envelopes in my car. And then a week later, we started The Prodigal Son.
And Anne got a big poster made for us. And we took the ladders to take that in, and we put it up on the wall. And, you know, these men then sat and stared at the painting, the way that Henri describes what he did. And we just sat and stared at it for a while. And then we started with The Prodigal Son. And yes, by the time I sent the email to you, we had finished probably eight weeks. We were at the end of eight weeks. And what a joy, what a joy to see what had happened in that time. It was just so beautiful.
And that’s why I was moved that day. It was a physical move of the Holy Spirit, where I just wanted to share this with someone. And I thought, “Nobody will understand this.” And in my heart, and still to this day, I really hope that whoever is making these books available, realizes what they’ve done.
Karen Pascal: You know, what’s so interesting to me, Denis: When I started as the executive director of the Henri Nouwen Society, one of the thoughts was, oh, it would be great to get Henri’s books into prisons. But what became evident very quickly was that the doors were barred for us. You can’t just send any book you want into a prison library. And so, in a sense, we got discouraged and didn’t see the possibility. When this came, it was sort of like from left field for me – that suddenly, somebody was walking this in, but not only walking it in, but was coming back and saying, “This has something of value to this community.”
I think I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about what you found that connected so deeply. The whole theme of fatherlessness, that first son returning home feeling he has no value whatsoever. Tell me a little bit about what you were seeing as the impact of sharing The Return of the Prodigal Son with the prison group that you were meeting with in South Africa.
Denis Jacobs: Well, God is a God of journey. You know, there’s always a journey that’s happening. So, it was a wonderful journey with them. And I suppose, when we do prison ministry, the prodigal son almost becomes a cliché scripture. And it had, for me, to be honest. In all the Alpha courses, we will speak of the prodigal son. You know, when we speak about why Jesus died, that he died for us, that he had made that sacrifice. So, I knew that parable so well, it almost had become water off a duck’s back for me. And just to be brought back to that, as we were going through the parable, and then the way that Henri had set it out, it was like footsteps into God’s world again, to say, “The things that you think have already become cliché? I’m going to show you something else.”
And I think that happened not just for me, because this was a journey for me and for the prisoners, not just for them. It was like the scripture was opened up again for me. And I thought that every week when I spoke, I thought, “It can’t get better than this.” Because when we spoke the first week about the son and the second week about the other son, and we saw – and we see this often – men just crying as they come to understand not only what they’ve done, but that God knows what they’ve done, and he’s still waiting. He’s standing not just idly by, but that he’s willing them and wishing them and calling them and pursuing them to come back.
You know, he’s standing at the house sort of waiting to see them far down the road. So, we had all of that, but then to journey through the older son, which I’ll speak about after, but to get to the father, and the father was the heart of what we got to, because, I think it’s Psalm 68, we speak about God being a father to the fatherless and a defender of the widows, and he leads out the prisoners singing. I think it’s Psalm 68. And when we got to that father section – now, the men there, you must remember, in where we are, they have life sentences. Most of them will not get parole. There are one or two that will, but they range from serial killers and murderers, to armed hijackings, gun running, really all kinds of murder.
So, these are men who have stared evil in the face. They’re not just wandering in off the street. And that’s the way that they’ve seen themselves. And now most of them have had children, most of the guys. I’ve asked them subsequently, but not one of them would ever have thought of themselves – well, I’m actually getting emotional thinking about it – as a father. It was like not only had had their lives been taken from them, but that fatherhood had just been robbed of them. They didn’t even think that they could go back to their children, you know? Then it was just amazing to see what God can do for those men. To realize that they were fathers and actually their Father loved them, and because their Father loved them, because Jesus died on the cross for them, that actually they were forgiven.
And the father in them came back alive. And we have so many stories of men who then got hold of their family and have tried that again. Instead of just saying, “Well, they will never see me as a father,” they’ve tried that again. And so, what a wonderful journey from just being the son eating with the pigs to realizing, “No, God wasn’t just leaving us as the son. He was always leading us to be the father that is a man. I’m called to father and not to son.”
And then to go through all of the getting from the son to the father. To say to the men, “It’s time; you can stop being a boy now.” Because that’s what we have in prison. We’ve got a lot of old boys instead of a lot of wise men. And what the gospel does, and that’s what happened with this teaching of Henri’s, is that that wisdom gets transferred, and they understand they can go from the one to the other.
Karen Pascal: You know, what I love so much about, as you’re telling this story, is I love that that was Henri’s discovery, too. I mean, that’s the heart of that book. Here he was having a major crisis, breakdown, and probably first saw himself just as that son returning, that broken person kneeling before the father and receiving forgiveness. And then he understood himself as the older brother, the kind of religious type that was a bit annoying, you know? A bit of an attitude guy who was not easy to be with, really. And then, I think it was Sue Mosteller who, in visiting with Henri when he was going through writing this, said, “But now Henri, you’re called to be the father.” What an amazing gift to all of us.
This book takes us right through that circle and brings us to this place where we can welcome people home. And I remember so vividly being with Henri, when he would say, “And the father doesn’t say, ‘Where have you been? What have you been up to? What have you done?’ No. He just said, ‘I’m so glad you’re back. I love you, and I’m so glad you’re back.’”
And it’s made the heart of our message at the Henri Nouwen Society: “You’re beloved, your father in heaven loves you and wants to welcome you home.” It’s an amazing, amazing message. When I got this lovely letter from you, I reached out to Stacey Campbell at Prison Fellowship Canada and just said, “Stacey, by any chance, do you have any kind of connection to Henri Nouwen?” And this was in January. And she said, “Well, coincidentally, I just gave every member on my staff for Christmas a Henri Nouwen book.”
So, I knew we were in the same camp. I knew that was what was happening. And then what happened was so special. We began to work together, the three of us. And I realized just the phenomenal blessing, because you and Stacey fully understand this ministry, and you and Stacy have doors opened. The crack of the door opened in South Africa, but now we’re bringing this into Canada. And I want to describe to people listening what we’re doing right now. I keep saying to people, “Canada is like the petri dish.” We’re going to develop this program here in Canada, working in partnership with Prison Fellowship and collaborating with them, knowing that they know what they’re doing, and you, Denis, know what you’re doing, and we’re going to bring this into Canada with the hope that down the road, this is going to be used right around the world.
But the interesting thing is that looking at the theme of fatherlessness, it’s not just for prisoners. There’s a crisis in the land. So, in essence, as we develop this program, it’s going to be something we also offer through the churches. And I think that’s so exciting, too.
Denis, tell us a little bit about the specifics of the program. What is it going to look like? It seems to me it’s an awful lot like the Alpha program, which is pretty exciting, because that’s been so incredibly successful. Tell us what we’re going to put together and what you think will work.
Denis Jacobs: So, because the content is so wonderfully laid out, I mean, the way Henri laid it out is inspired, it’s certainly inspired. So, it’s a journey from the younger son through the older son to the father. And what we do is we take the lesson of each of those, and then actually we split that into six weeks. So, we’ve got six weeks of content that comes from Henri’s book that speaks on all of the issues that are then unpacked in the book. And it is the journey of the parable. It’s the journey of . . . you start out as we all are, as sinners, with pride rebelling against God. But what we do there is we – and it comes from all the years of running Alpha in the prison and at the church and at work and all these places.
But people need to not just be receiving, but also contributing. So, what we do is we will take them through the material and then allow people to then discuss. So, you have the material, and then you have group discussions. And what we found, particularly in a prison environment, is that often prisoners and men who are in prison haven’t had the chance to speak about things, just to have their say. And so, we see it in that type of environment, where it’s not simply that men come for a lecture or are spoken down to. It’s the gospel that is inside of that message that’s given to them, that’s planted. And then they’re allowed to react and interact with that message.
So, it would be over a six-to-eight-week period. They would come once a week. The way that we did it here – and it may change as we go – but they would come once a week, spend 20 minutes to half an hour going through the material. Somebody would speak to them. I think the way that we do it here is obviously live speaking, because that’s what I do. And we can’t really take audiovisual into this prison, but we will record video sessions of each of those teachings, and then use that as the basis of the teaching: Allow them to take that in and then allow them to discuss that. And what we do find is that even though the teaching, regardless of who does it, is wonderful, a lot of the times where the men really learn and really are able to come to grips with the material is when they start speaking about it with each other. And so, that’s what the program looks like. It’s six to eight weeks, once a week, come in, get a teaching, and then discuss that teaching.
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting to me. If you’re familiar with the Alpha program, which is a wonderful program and has been used all over the world and translated into hundreds of different languages, actually. In a sense, what is kind of exciting to me is that when you look at the leader’s guide, they mention three books that you should read. One of course is Nicky Gumbel’s; he’s the founder of Alpha. And then they mention Henri Nouwen’s The Return of The Prodigal Son. And the other is one by Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? All books that we love. But what I think is so fantastic is I think that Denis is going to be our Nicky Gumbel – he’s going to do the videos. That’s a start.
Now, obviously, he’s not going to be doing the videos in any other language other than English, but it’s kind of interesting to be starting at that place. And there’s another little bit, another funny little detail I want to share in the history of Henri Nouwen: Guess who came to his door as he was journeying, trying to put together his ministry? Chuck Colson, who was the founder of Prison Fellowship. Isn’t that interesting? I mean, I just kind of see the big picture and say, “God, you have this very beautifully woven together.”
So, here we are. We have just begun to launch this program. We’re calling it Father to the Fatherless, and it’s obviously to be used in prisons, but also to be used in churches. And we’ll make it available to anybody who wants to be using it, obviously, as we develop it.
I’m so very excited about sharing the tool that God’s put in our hands. I’m really thrilled. And don’t you just love how God knits together people in all of this? I think that’s quite wonderful. He’s introduced us to Denis.
Denis, if you don’t mind, you have quite an interesting personal story. How did you come from where you have been to where you are? I do know that there was a lot of trauma in your teen years, a lot of losses, and it resulted in a life that wasn’t heading in this direction, for sure. Tell me just a little bit about your own personal story.
Denis Jacobs: I always tell people that I had a radical transformation, and you know, I’ve come to see that any transformation is radical. But that was my experience, as the Bible tells us, as the gospel tells us, that God transforms you from dark to light, and he takes your heart of stone and gives you a heart of flesh, and the old is gone, and the new is come. And all those things were like, in an instant I was filled with that understanding.
And I had quite a long journey. I think I shared with you, as a boy – I love my father, but we had some problems at home. My father’s still alive and I want to honor him, not go into too much detail on all of those issues. But I ended up . . . At the age of 16, first of all, I had a girlfriend who died suddenly. I had seen her probably on a weekend, and the next weekend she had passed away. She had suffered from an asthma attack and stopped breathing. And actually, nobody really knew of my relationship with her. It was a very amazing thing. I had spent such amazing time with her, and nobody even knew that this was traumatic for me. I ended up carrying her coffin, at the age of 16.
And probably two years to the day, my brother was killed by a drunk driver. And that really was a heavy blow for me. He was my youngest brother. We came from a family of five children. He was my youngest brother. He was a twin brother. His name was Christopher Peter. And I loved him. And so, that was a trauma that I really battled with.
I was 18 then, but probably from the age of 16, I had started drinking, and I drank quite heavily. And I think I said to you, I saw myself as a functional alcoholic. But it was something that I just couldn’t stop. I tried so many times, and just couldn’t stop. And eventually I became very depressed and, in fact, suicidal. And I decided that I was going to commit suicide. And it was on a Tuesday afternoon that I got an email from a lady that I didn’t even know.
And she said, “Why don’t you come on an Alpha course?” I had been on one previously, and actually had walked out on the weekend. I really wasn’t doing well with the Holy Spirit and all the happy clapping. And so, it was very unfamiliar territory for me, and it was the Holy Spirit just convicting me, and putting light into my heart and saying, “Listen, Denis, I’ve got so much more.” But I didn’t understand, I couldn’t hear that voice.
And so, I got this email. And actually, when I received the email, I started to answer the email, and the answer was, “No, I’m too busy.” I had a very high-level job. I was sitting in a top-floor office at that time. From the outside, I had everything, but I was desperately unhappy, and actually felt very much alone. I had a beautiful wife, two children, so they were there, but I was just battling with this alcoholism and depression. And actually, somebody called me before I could send the email, and I went out to a meeting. By the time I came back, it was too late. So, I just closed my laptop and went home. There was no angel speaking to me, or God speaking to me. Nothing happened that night.
But when I got back in the morning – and I start work very early, so it was about five o’clock in the morning – I opened my machine and I saw this message that I had written. And without a thought, I deleted the message and just said, “Yes, but I want to be a leader.”
And I sent it, and I thought, “You know what? I will commit suicide at a later stage.” And it’s not to make it sound flippant; this was something that I had set my heart on. I did not know the way out. And to me, the way out was, I would rather that my children didn’t see me the way that I was.
And then I went and I joined that Alpha course, and God found me, and I found him. I never shared any of that with anyone at that course, but there were people around me that were praying for me, that were so gentle with me. I actually was given the responsibility of leading a group. I was so inept and so unprepared and so lost, but here was Jesus, every week, just speaking to me through those, you know: “Who am I to you? Who am I to you? Did you think I went away? I never went away. I was the same Jesus that spoke to you as a boy. I’m the same Jesus now, I’m the same as the prodigal son, just saying, ‘Come back. Come home. Come home.’”
And on the weekend of the Holy Spirit, the one that I’d left before, a man that I didn’t know – and I know him now, and he’s a wonderful man – came and prayed for me. And he did not know my story, because I had not told it to anyone. And he put his hand on me, and I was filled with the Holy Spirit. And in that instant, and it was an instant, I was transformed. I’ve told people this before: It was like the Holy Spirit was a wind, a corkscrew of wind that came into me, went all the way down into my little toes, and just took all the stuff that had poisoned me, and it was out.
And I remember going home that day, and I looked in the mirror and I felt clean, you know, really clean, like just-washed-baby clean. And I didn’t want to drink anymore. And I was healed in an instant. It wasn’t just that the alcoholism was taken away, it was also that there was no taste for it.
And what I said to people afterwards, was the way that I had managed the addiction was it was like having this massive spring, you know, those big metal springs. And every day I would just keep the spring down and I would fight the spring for as long as I could. Eventually the spring would spring up, and then I would drink or I’d do whatever, and then I would push it down. And my thought of Jesus before that was that he’s going to make me strong enough to sort the spring out. But actually, what happened was that I got home that day, and the spring was gone. It wasn’t even . . . I didn’t even have to fight. I didn’t have to go on a program. It was just in an instant taken. And, you know, from that moment, I knew that everything had changed. And it was almost immediately that I wanted to tell people. And I can carry on this.
Karen Pascal: Denis, it seems like such a miracle that you had this transformative experience. I’m curious: Was there anybody praying for you specifically?
Denis Jacobs: At the time, I didn’t know and obviously was oblivious to all the praying. But you know, probably one of the most important people in my life is my mom. And I’ve heard this from prisoners: It’s a granny or a mom or auntie. There’s some wonderful woman in the background that’s praying. And it was my mom, Elaine, who had not only prayed for me, but prayed for my father for 40 years, and then prayed for me. And at some stage I thought – and I remember telling my sister – I thought that my mom had lost her mind, because all she wanted to speak to me about was Jesus. And I didn’t know Jesus. So, it was crazy to me that all she wanted to speak about was Jesus.
But if you had to listen in on a conversation that I have with my amazing mother today, you know, it’s all worth it. Those prayers were answered. And she is my rock in my life, and any day that everybody’s tired of me speaking about Jesus, I can phone my mother and we can speak for hours. So, I’m so grateful, and I just want to encourage any mothers or grandmothers who maybe their children are on the prodigal path: Just keep praying. God is listening. God is doing. He’s going to bring them back. But he loves our prayers. And I know that he listened to my mom, and I know that those prayers are the prayers that were the hands that that reached out to pull me back on many occasions. And I’m so grateful to my mom for that.
Karen Pascal: Oh, my goodness! This is the good-news story. This is what God does in our life. I’m so glad that we get to share this with our Henri Nouwen audience. And I know there’s so many of you that will go, “I’ve got some sort of spring in my life that I’m trying to keep control over.” And the good news is that God can actually do something about that, that’s far greater than you could imagine. That’s what Henri found in his life. I mean, he was at the depths of his being when he wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son.
By the way, we haven’t said it, but if you have not read The Return of the Prodigal Son, oh, you’ll enjoy it. You must get the book. There’ll be a link in our show notes to that.
And I would also say that all that we’re talking about today, it’s all about the good news that God can do, what God can do in a life. That’s what was so central to Henri. He met the brokenness that was in his life, and he discovered he was beloved. That’s what you discover when you’re there and the Father is welcoming you home: You are beloved to the Father, and there’s nothing that he won’t forgive. So, that is really the incredible, good news.
Denis, you have so much to share and we are so excited about you being our “Nicky Gumbel” for this, that you’re going to be doing the videos. People are going to enjoy that.
I hope that all of you will go to our website and check out this very important initiative that we’ve begun in collaboration with Prison Fellowship Canada. It’s called Father to the Fatherless. Please check it out. Please become part of supporting it, because we’re going to need you. And think big, just the way God does. Think big. God is going to do great things with this.
I am so aware that, you know, Denis doesn’t talk about all the different aspects of his life, but he is a very accomplished programmer, software developer, and he’s a gifted illustrator and writer. He’s written a book called On the Beatitudes and illustrated it. He sent me this morning a beautiful piece that he did for his daughter’s 21st birthday. It’s called Daughter of a King. And he’s in the process of writing right now and creating The Forgiveness Tree. Denis doesn’t just write it, he illustrates it. So, this is such a gifted and talented man. And we’ll make sure there’s links to his website as well, so, you can enjoy what I’m talking about and see a little bit of it.
Denis, what’s your vision for where we’re going with this?
Denis Jacobs: Well, my heart has just always been for the gospel since I was born again. It was just, you know, use whatever breath you have and whatever energy you have. You said such nice, wonderful things about me, but – and I think you’ve known since you’ve met me – that my heart is actually for Jesus, that whatever we do and whatever I do is to make him known and to make him famous and to bring the good news, the gospel to people. So, the big picture for me is that this teaching, this book, this material, because it’s the gospel that’s being presented so wonderfully and in such a relevant form for prisoners, that it would reach as many prisoners as there are in the world.
Because the message of being a father more than to me, the message of being the prodigal son, is what changes the world. It’s the gospel that says that you thought that you couldn’t do this, and you thought that you didn’t qualify as a father. Well, I’m telling you that. And as you know, and I said this to somebody the other day, that Henri battled with almost seeking affirmation for things. Like, is it good enough? And I think even as we do this, we have to stop saying, “I wonder if it’s good enough.” It is good enough, because when Jesus heard those words from his father, it was the beginning of his ministry, not the end. It was before the miracles. It wasn’t after the miracles. It wasn’t after he had gone and given his life for us. It was before that, actually, the message. And that’s why it’s so beautiful, the way that Henri just captures it. It’s like if somebody could take a photo with perfect lighting of the gospel, whatever that looked like. That’s what he’s done with this book. And it’s a beautiful photograph that just captures the gospel, and the gospel is that: Before we do anything, we are valued and valuable, and that we are beloved. And when you tell a man that, who has done something so terrible that he can’t forgive himself, never mind anybody else forgiving him, and he comes to terms with that, and the gospel now is in his heart, everything changes.
And there is nothing that changes the heart of prisoners the way that the gospel does. There’s nothing. In fact, in the prison that we’re in, they have all kinds of training programs. They are like sweets, you know? The things that you eat one, and then eventually you forget about it. The gospel comes as a balm, and it doesn’t go away. It’s the thing that transforms the hearts of the men in there.
And the last thing I know – if I talk too much, I know you’ll forgive me – we talk about The Prodigal Son being for men in prison; but I’ve seen, when we ask the men about their fathers, we realize that they have led lives of fatherlessness. They are the product of a fatherless society. And it’s when we understand that although this is the way that we are reaching men’ hearts in prison, the key actually is that you reach the fathers before they get to prison, with the message of the gospel, then you don’t have the men in prison. And I think that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s not just a teaching and a parable about a man, for men in prison. It’s a parable for men. It’s a parable for fathers. And in that role, mothers. And in that role, sisters. It’s the gospel for all of us to say, “Listen: Before you did anything, I loved you, and you were beloved, and you were good enough. And if you were good enough then, you’re good enough now.”
Karen Pascal: It’s interesting, because you just hit on it. The issue of fatherlessness is not just for men. That’s a trauma in the world today. There are so many women who don’t have a good relationship with their father. And then the impact of that on the life they live is amazing.
I love the fact you have had such a transformative experience with God that you can give that out with confidence to others. And it just excites me so much. We both love working with Stacey Campbell at Prison Fellowship Canada. She’s just an incredibly wise woman, and they have a wonderful ministry here in Canada. Of the 1,500 prisons in Canada, they’re working in 1,400. So, doors that were completely closed to us are beginning to open, and we want to go through them carefully and with respect and under their guidance and working well with them. But in a way, I’m so excited that we’re allowed to bring the feast to a new place and to a new audience and to say, “This is really the good news.” When Henri got it, his life was changed. It was that absolute certainty: I am beloved. And it is the certainty that each one of us can give to others.
Denis, thank you so much. I just want to encourage others to join with us in this. This is not ours alone. We need you to come alongside; there’ll be lots of information in the show notes on how you can. We would love to have you be part of our vision here, and help us.
Denis, thank you so, much. I really appreciate chatting with you.
Denis Jacobs: It’s an absolute pleasure, and I know that what we are doing here is inspired by the Holy Spirit, so, it’ll go as far as the Holy Spirit wants it to go. And that is such a blessing for all of us. So, thank you, thank you very much for everything that you’ve done. Thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
Karen Pascal: God bless. Bye-bye.
Thank you for listening to today’s podcast. What a joy to listen to the overflow of a heart on fire with the love of Jesus. Denis Jacobs has been transformed, and having experienced this, he is passionate about introducing others to the Savior he loves and serves. Denis saw the impact of The Return of the Prodigal Son. If you’ve never read this book by Henri Nouwen, you may wish to now – there’ll be links to the book in our podcast notes – or pick it up from your local library.
For more resources related to this program, click on the links on the podcast page of our website. You’ll find links to anything mentioned today, as well as book suggestions.
Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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