Eighteen years later, “Nanay” (or “Mommy” ) Sophie Jenista’s thriving prison ministry speaks truth and hope into the lives of many hurting female inmates of the Manila Correctional Institute for Women (CIW) in Mandaluyong City, Philippines.
The prisoners at CIW are not being held here for petty charges—these women face long sentences for murder, drug dealing, embezzlement, and other serious offenses. In the compound they must face the demons from their past and resist the temptation to return to old ways of life.
Over the years, Sophie’s affectionate care for her prison “daughters” has allowed her to establish a strong foundation for the spread of the gospel within the prison’s walls. Within two years of starting her prison ministry, at least a third of the inmates were attending her Tuesday Bible studies, where the gospel was faithfully and clearly taught every week.
A women’s fellowship group was also formed out of the women who came to saving faith through Sophie’s teaching. These newfound believers shared the gospel with their fellow inmates in the dorms, in the cafeteria, in the courtyard, and even from their own bunks.
Because Sophie and her ministry partner, a Filipina named Deb Anat, were known for keeping order among the rowdiest inmates at their gatherings, the two women were always welcome to minster at the prison. While other religious groups who came to visit the inmates were given time restrictions, the directress allowed Sophie all the time she needed to love on her girls.
FIVE MISSIONARY KIDS
For Sophie, the call to missions was a natural one.
She learned the importance of evangelism at a very young age through the examples of her parents. Her father, Benno Gerdes, was a soldier and a machinist, and devout follower of Christ. Benno moved his family from Germany to the United States to pursue religious freedom, after his attempts to share the gospel to his German coworkers only resulted in threats toward his family.
His ministry-driven heart thrived in the freedom that coming to America brought. “He loved to pass out salvation tracts and share the gospel with anyone he could,” Sophie remembers.
Not only did her parents clearly exemplify the life of a missionary for Sophie, she said, but she and her siblings also learned to share the gospel through the “High School Born Againers Club” which often met in their home. It was only natural, Sophie said, that most—if not all—of the Gerdes children would become missionaries.
And five of the six did go into full-time missions. The sixth sibling is also involved in ministry in the church.
Sophie’s first field of service would be in Mexico, as a young adult. After she met and married her late husband, Frank, the two joined ABWE in 1948 as missionaries to China. They served in China for about a year before political unrest forced them to flee.
It was as Frank and Sophie were living in tents as refugees on the beach of Hong Kong, fervently seeking guidance on where to go from there, that God revealed their next assignment.
“He led us to the Philippines, where ABWE was thriving.”
Sophie and Frank left for the Philippines in 1950, where they taught at Doane Baptist Bible Institute, ministering primarily through tent campaigns with the goal of planting churches. It was challenging work, Sophie said. Frank was often gone for several months every year, many times working in dangerous places where he faced those who intended to hurt or kill him. Sophie worked from home, ministering to the community while also raising and teaching their five children.
But through their faithful work, many lives were transformed. The churches that were planted through their ministry continue to thrive in the Philippines today. And Sophie rejoices in the fact that many who despised and threatened Frank and his work have since come to Christ.
After the children were all grown, an opportunity arose for Frank and Sophie to teach at another Bible school in Sydney, Australia. From there, God led them to a church plant, and then on to a Bible school in Papua New Guinea. It was here, in 1984, that God suddenly called Frank home.
Following her husband’s homegoing, Sophie determined to dedicate the rest of her life to continuing to serve God through missions.
“I changed my focus to be a teacher and encourager,” she said.
She spent her time traveling to various ABWE and Philippine missionaries, teaching seminars on finding freedom in Christ to youth groups and churches. Through that Sophie continued to make an impact in lives:
“I recently received a call from a woman who attended one of [these] seminars 40 years ago, thanking God for rescuing her,” she said. This was only one of several expressions of gratitude she has received over the years.
God had called Sophie back to the Philippines to do more than just teach seminars, however. And in 2000, He led Sophie to the women at CIW.
Well into her 90s, Sophie is considered a retired missionary. But her prison ministry continues to be a full-time investment. Sophie and Deb oversee the ministry at CIW remotely, relying on two local groups—The Light Bearers, a group of prisoners saved through Sophie’s teaching and now discipling others; and an onsite ministry liaison.
They still travel to Manila from time to time, returning most recently from a 3-week trip to the prison to lead a training and mentoring session.
Sophie’s children often speak of the spiritual heritage they received from their parents’ faithfulness.“[She] loved the lyrics to Find Us Faithful,” said daughter Ruth Pettitt, “especially the line, ‘May all who come behind us find us faithful.’ To this day, that’s what she is. Faithful.”
“Throughout her life journey and missionary ministry, Sophie has trusted the faithfulness of God and exhibited flexibility to obediently follow wherever He redeployed her,” said Kent Craig, Executive Director for the Asia Pacific and East Asia. “Being able to navigate the twists and turns over 70 years of service with ABWE has enabled her to reach many milestones for the glory of the Lord.”