Converge jailhouse church helps the broken become believers

Ben Greene

Pastor & writer

  • Church planting & multiplication

Man in handcuffs holding a Bible          

A cup of coffee at the Mille Lacs County jail on a Sunday evening changed Stephen’s* (not his real name) life. 


“Here came this guy pushing a cart with a coffee maker on it and the biggest smile on his face,” Stephen said. “I went for the coffee but stayed for his story and felt at home again.” 


The man pushing the cart, Tom Kingore, quietly befriends men like Stephen, who was sentenced to more than 25 years in the Minnesota correctional facility. Most of Stephen’s 42 years of life reflect the consequences of homelessness, addiction and the correctional system. 


Stephen had never found God and never trusted people, especially men. So, he was leery the first time he met Kingore, who pastors a Free Grace United church campus inside the Mille Lacs County Jail. 


“Before I knew what happened, I had told my own story,” Stephen shared. “With the pastor’s guidance, I found my way back to God, and more and more, I found myself at peace with joy in my heart.” 


Such an influence commonly comes through Free Grace churches, Kingore explained. 


“I just keep pointing them back to Jesus,” Kingore said. “Jesus took the worst people in the Bible and turned them into the best people.” 


How does God do it?


Kingore first went to a Free Grace church with Amy before she became his fiancé or wife. He had to ‘pass the church test,’ she quipped.  


Once he did, they decided to get married, and they both ended up working for the church. She’s the finance director; he’s the facilities manager. 


But when his best friend was arrested in 2019, Kingore’s motivation to plant a Free Grace United church inside the jail began. His friend said people in the jail needed a Free Grace United-style church. 


I just keep pointing them back to Jesus. Jesus took the worst people in the Bible and turn them into the best people.

Tom Kingore

After that, Kingore volunteered once at a recovery meeting in the jail. He continued volunteering weekly and became the ministry’s leader in the summer of 2019. 


In 2023, they baptized six people in the jail as they continued to serve people looking for a better way to live. Between 50 and 150 people are incarcerated there.  


Many are First Nations people who grew up on reservations. That’s a life sometimes defined by drug abuse, violence and poverty. 


Related: Converge global worker shares perspective and passion for making First Nations disciples. 


Kingore has the life experience to foster trust with men and women at the jail.  


“Once I went in there, I realized that they’re the kind of people I can relate to,” he said. “I see myself in them a little bit, and they can see that.” 


Kingore also embraces them with respect, refusing to look down on them or believe he’s better than them. He proclaims salvation to them because he knows God pulled him out of a troubled life and can do the same for them. 


“He’ll take anybody,” Kingore said of God. “He isn’t looking for the good, perfect people. He’s looking for the broken, hurt people.” 


Related: Caring for the broken people landed one woman in another Minnesota jail 


A modified message that changes people who hear God speaking 

Free Grace United churches always hear the same sermons at the various locations. Kingore follows suit, although he modifies the message to make it into a conversation around tables. The jail allows a maximum of 18 people to attend at one time. 


Related: Another pastor also repurposed his preaching as more of a discussion 


Kingore has built relationships with people to understand their general spiritual perspectives better. Many have been hurt by churches because of their situation. 


On top of the pain, they’re confused about who God is and how to live a life of faith, he said. This is especially true for many of the indigenous people who’ve been taught ideas that are in the Bible, such as a creator God, and some ideas that aren’t in God’s word. 


“I just like to see them go from being really sad to reading their Bible and actually understanding it,” he said. 


man reading Bible in jail 

He’s not just sharing God’s word; he’s sharing his time 


Kingore visits the jail weekly for two to three hours to help change lives. He also goes in randomly to talk with people if they need him. In between, people can call him or e-mail him from the jail. 


That’s what Stephen’s been doing for a few years now. 


“He’s my pastor, my mentor and my friend,” Stephen said.  


Such intimacy is an uncommon reality in Stephen’s life. He’s usually avoided close relationships with anyone, especially men.  


Stephen once surrendered his life to God several years ago. He seriously lived for service, selflessness and love. But then he turned back into dysfunctional ways and lost all that he’d rebuilt. 


As a result, he lost everything, including his faith and, more than that, hope. He woke up in jail facing an $800,000 bail and a prison sentence longer than 25 years.  


“It took months for me to speak to God,” Stephen said. “I was ashamed and fearful he wanted nothing to do with someone who turned his back on him.” 


Then came a Sunday night when Kingore served coffee at the Mille Lacs County Jail.  


“I’ve been here 18 months with some serious ups and downs,” Stephen said. “Pastor Tom walks the walk. His prayers for me reach God’s ears, and his belief in me reaches my heart.” 


Converge's 10 districts have committed to deploying 312 church planters before 2026. Read more inspiring church planting stories and learn about the goal to send out 312 church planters in five years.

Ben Greene, Pastor & writer

Ben Greene is a freelance writer and pastor currently living in Massachusetts. Along with his ministry experience, he has served as a full-time writer for the Associated Press and in the newspaper industry.

Additional articles by Ben Greene