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Prison ministry to expand reach

March 29, 1998|By DAVE McMILLION

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Ministry expandsPrison ministry to expand reach

Gary Benchoff said he has never feared going into prisons to talk to inmates about God.

The exhilaration he gets by being the messenger offsets any anxiety.

But the trip Benchoff will be taking next month has him thinking a little more seriously about what he does.

For four weeks, Benchoff will be going to prisons in Zimbabwe and Zambia to help meet the spiritual needs of prisoners. The conditions in African prisons are crumbling, and about the only time inmates get food is when it is brought in by families, according to Benchoff and mission organizers.

Benchoff will be working with an international organization that is trying to help African governments come up with a better plan for running prisons and reducing the number of repeat offenders.

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"I'll probably never be the same," said Benchoff, who sometimes refers to himself as "just a construction worker from Williamsport."

But Benchoff is not going into this blindly.

For five years, he has been visiting prisoners in Roxbury Correctional Institution, Maryland Correctional Institution and the Maryland Correctional Training Center.

The visits can result in serious discussions about religion, or involve helping prisoners with simple things like setting up a checking account after they are released from jail.

"We give them something to hold onto. A lot of them don't have families. We're not there to determine how deep the faith is," said Benchoff, who turned to Jesus Christ in 1977 after living the "hippy lifestyle" in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

The prison services are usually held early on Sundays. Benchoff said he usually gets back from the prisons in time to attend service with his family at Faith Chapel on Locust Street.

At the nondenominational church, Benchoff helps lead the men's ministry, where he helps men understand how to properly love their wives and take care of their children.

Between his prison ministry and church functions, Benchoff works for Pulte Home Construction in Gaithersburg, Md.

Benchoff will leave the country Thursday to join officials with Prison Fellowship International. He is traveling with Terry and Linda King, who have been on missionary trips in Africa before. Terry King is the former minister of Faith Chapel.

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