Sports with a Higher Purpose

Dale Glading and prison aren’t exactly strangers. The 44-year-old Cinnaminson man has spent more hours than he can remember in the company of gun turrets, razor wire and men with little or no hope. Name a prison, and Glading’s probably been there. Sing Sing, Allenwood and Riverfront State Prison in Camden are just a few. Grater-ford and Florida State are a couple more.

His visits, however, have nothing to do with misbehavior. He’s hardly a bad guy.

Glading is the founder and executive director of The Saints Prison Ministry, a Moorestown organization dedicated to spreading the message of Jesus Christ through sports. The ministry is based in the Moorestown Bible Church on Main Street. “We’re an athletic prison ministry, and we’re in about 250 prisons in 17 states,” says Glading, who became a born-again Christian in 1977 and whose office walls are adorned with baseball photos and pennants. “We use sports as a vehicle to reach the inmates.”

Nearly 100 athletes belong to the ministry and step into lock-ups all over the country to help spread Christ’s message to whomever will listen. Not surprisingly, securing permission to go inside the prisons doesn’t require much coaxing. You might call it an easy sell.

“Yes, it is,” says Glading. “They look at us as a quality recreation program that doesn’t charge them anything. Our only stipulation is that we be permitted 15 or 20 minutes after a game or between games to share a brief gospel presentation. It’s all voluntary. We don’t twist any arms or lock the fire exits in the gymnasiums.” If anybody wants to stick around and listen to what the athletes have to say, they can. The vast majority does. The men are curious. They appreciate the fact that an outside team has taken the time and made the effort to pay a visit. The ministry teams are virtually the only outside teams that go into institutions in New Jersey or, for that matter, anywhere else in the country, Glading says.

“To take time out from work and their families and spend time with us is really appreciated,” says 40-year-old Enrique Garcia of Deptford, an inmate at Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, Cumberland County, whose team recently defeated the Ministry baseball team 9-7. “Everyone on the field appreciates their coming, and we thank the administration and everyone else involved. It reinforces our feelings about mankind, that there’s a little good still left in the world.”

Garcia hit a two-run homer and a double in that contest.

The inmates also appreciate the high level of competition and refuse to go down without a fight. Several members of the Ministry basketball team have played Division 1 college basketball, including some who have competed in Philadelphia’s Big 5.

“Winning is important, second place don’t work,” says Robert Forvour, 30 of Pine Hill, one of Garcia’s teammates at Bayside. The bottom line, says Glading, is that “we give them a good game and earn their respect.quot;

“We treat them as gentlemen and don’t try to judge them,” he says. “We’re sinners just like they are. The only difference between us and them is that we’ve found the answer to our problems and now we want to introduce them to Jesus Christ.” Inmates aren’t the only ones benefiting from the ministry’s effort. Those who go into the prisons to deliver the Lord’s message share in the euphoria, too.

Basketball player Kevin Vaughan, 30, of Lindenwold, says he enjoys being in a position to help those less fortunate. ” We offer hope and change in guys’ lives,” he notes. “Guys come up to us and say ‘thank you’ all the time.” He’s been helping out for eight years.

Softball pitcher and first baseman Hugh Dwyer, 32 of Ewing Township, who’s played in about 350 games over the past seven years, says he’ll never forget the satisfaction he gleaned four or five years ago following a game in upstate New York.

As the team was waiting to be escorted off the playing field, the inmates created a corridor for them with their bodies. “As we exited the field, they gave us this incredible applause – just for taking the time to come in and share with them,” Dwyer said. “It was more than enough to bring tears to your eyes. It was very moving.”.

Founded by Glading in 1987, the ministry now has a branch in Colorado Springs, Colo., and plans to open a third branch in Charlottesville, VA., later this year. Since forming, Glading and his athletes have competed in everything from minimum-security juvenile facilities to maximum-security US penitentiaries. Ministry athletes range in age from 30’s to the oldest member, who is 54.

In New Jersey and Pennsylvania, the ministry fields three touring softball teams (one in Moorestown, one in Sewell and the third in Philadelphia), an indoor soccer team, an outdoor soccer team and a basketball team. The softball teams play 60 to 75 games a season, starting in late April and concluding in mid-October.

While the inmates usually lose, no one gets too upset. Not once has a loss led to any form of physical retribution, says the ministry. “It’s a way of reaching out in a very non-threatening atmosphere to men who otherwise wouldn’t come to a chapel service, Bible study or any other conventional religious program,” says Glading, who manages the Moorestown team and plays second base.

The institutions are highly supportive. For many, the feedback they receive reemphasizes their need for such programming. In a letter to the Saints Prison Ministry, Helen Behney, recreation director for the Stanley J. Radgowski Correctional Institution in Uncasville, Conn., wrote: “The sportsmanship, compassion and competitiveness that was demonstrated by your players was extremely positive. It has reminded us that behavior and people can change if we are all willing to work together.”