By Rich Brown
JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Joe Garman started a prison ministry four decades ago in Joplin, he never imagined it would touch lives around the world and be recognized by four U.S. presidents.
ARM Prison Outreach International, which Garman founded as the American Rehabilitation Ministries, celebrates its 40th anniversary on May 10, and Garman still finds himself amazed at its overwhelming success.
An Ozark Christian College graduate, Garman never dreamed he would be involved in such a ministry when he and his wife, Linda, headed to South Korea as missionaries in 1969. Entering their first prison in Taejon, the Garmans' mission field soon became South Korean prisons.
Upon their return to Joplin in 1973, they were greeted by Cecil Todd, founder and president of Revival Fires Ministries.
"Cecil met us at the Joplin airport and said, ÔWe want you to do here with Revival Fires what you did with your prison ministry in South Korea,'" Garman said.
So Garman, as president of ARM, began his new ministry with modest intentions. His original thoughts centered on conducting individual Bible studies in prisons, not thinking too far beyond the Joplin area, even though ARM was intended as a nationwide prison outreach.
It wasn't long before Garman's myopic view of the ministry proved wrong. After about five years at the Revival Fires headquarters, across from OCC, Garman had to seek a new location to accommodate growth. That new site at 3605 N. Main St. is the former home of the Goodman Church Builders, and it's where the ministry's headquarters has been ever since.
At the onset of the ministry, the prison population in America was only about 234,000. The target audience today reaches upward of 2 million people incarcerated in America's 1,600 state and federal prisons and 3,100 county and city jails.
Up until 13 years ago, the ministry only served American prisons, but in 2001 that changed with the outreach embracing a ministry in Mexico. It has since gone on to be a part of other foreign jail and prison ministries in Cambodia, Thailand, Korea, Russia and the Philippines.
In 2005, the ministry's board of directors decided to establish Hispanic Ministry Outreach (HMO), coordinated by Bob and Mary Marsh, former missionaries to Peru. The Marshes have helped expand the ministry into Cuba and Puerto Rico.
It's no wonder the slogan on the latest brochure says "The Mission with an Arm Around the World."
As home to the American Bible Academy, the ministry has become the national distributor for the American Bible Society, which is the oldest Bible society in the world. With 18,851 male and female prisoners enrolled, ABA is the fastest growing Bible college behind bars. Statistics show a new inmate student enrolls every 30 minutes.
Another important outreach has to do with baptisteries. In fact, the ministry says that every 10 minutes someone, somewhere in the world is baptized in a baptistery it built and donated.
Not long after Garman founded the ministry, he built a baptistery on wheels, which is a trailer with a fiberglass lining that can be towed from prison to prison. That was followed by the communion table baptistery, a hollow communion table containing a fiberglass tank. Then came the collapsible portable baptistery, built with aluminum tubing and a vinyl tub. This baptistery, weighing 30 pounds, unfolds like a lawn chair and can be carried by hand.
A highlight of Garman's ministry centers around a baptistery he took to a Miami, Fla., prison to minister to ousted Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega.
"I preached to him and we had communion together," Garman said. "Even though he is back in prison in Panama, we have kept in touch all these years."
The ministry has ministered through personal visitations to prisons and through the mail. It has shipped more than 1.1 million Bibles and more than 100 million Christian greeting cards to correctional facilities. It is the national distributor for DaySpring greeting cards, which contain a gospel tract and a Christian message for all holidays.
One of the biggest jobs for the 135 people who volunteer each month at the headquarters, which has added two warehouses and grown to more than 21,000 square feet over the years, is to prepare and mail out the cards. Those volunteers also help with grading correspondence courses, as well as shipping Bibles and biblical materials to prisons.
Anyone wishing to volunteer may call ARM at 781-9100 or visit the ministry's website at www.arm.org.