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Angie Wieck, Published April 07 2013

It's My Job: Jail chaplain felt call to serve after battle with alcoholism

FARGO – Mike Sonju did not always envision himself as a jail chaplain. As a matter of fact, being a claustrophobic afraid of public speaking, such a career seemed highly unlikely.

But Sonju said God had another plan. After a battle with alcoholism, Sonju saw the light and became a licensed minister in 1998. In 2007, he left his job of 25 years as a boiler house fireman to serve as full-time chaplain at the Cass County Jail.

Q. What is a typical day like?

I come in mornings and usually hold Bible study. I’ll also talk one on one with people. Sometimes they’re feeling discouraged or depressed. Sometimes they need some guidance. I’m not really a counselor, but I certainly wouldn’t decline talking to anybody. If I have an opportunity to help them, I will.

I also do work with former inmates on the outside. Our ministry now works in conjunction with My Father’s House, a transitional house for some former inmates who want to integrate back into society in a healthy way and in a good environment.

I just believe the church needs to respond to the community needs here. Each one of these men and women are part of this community, and they will go back into this community. We endeavor to not only give them the Gospel to help them get on with their lives, but the good life that God has for them.

Many come from dysfunctional families or backgrounds, or they’re involved with alcohol and drugs. I was an alcoholic, and I realized that a person can get caught up in something that is destructive and not know how to get unbound from it.

Do you serve inmates of other faiths?

I’m the full-time chaplain, but there are other volunteers here as well. … I’m a Christian. I don’t apologize to anybody for that. I also try to put myself in their position. If I were in jail as a Christian, I would want someone to accommodate my faith, so that’s what I attempt to do.

Do you get good participation?

We don’t force anybody to come to our programs. I always figure whoever is there is supposed to be there. Typically on Saturday nights for church we have approximately 15 to 20 men who come. Every time we have a Bible study there is someone there. Sometimes they’re reluctant to come right away for whatever reason, but after a while they do come.

What do you like best about your job?

What I like best is when I see somebody get on with their life the way God intended, when families are brought together, and when people realize they don’t have to live in darkness but they can live in God’s light. God has a plan and a purpose for everyone’s life. When I see someone embracing that, that’s what really makes my day, so to speak.

It’s always hard to see somebody recidivate and come back with the same old issues. Then again, I realize that it is what it is. I’ve had my problems in life and God is still working me.

Jail was never the problem. Jail is usually the end result of a problematic life. So, we try to get to the issue and the heart of the problem. We try to see how we can remedy that so an inmate can have a productive life. Not only as an individual, but in their family, the community and world we live in.

I’m responsible for one person going to heaven and that’s myself, but if I can help somebody to realize Jesus Christ is the way the truth and the life, that makes it all worthwhile.

To submit an idea for “It’s My Job,” email businessnews@forumcomm.com.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Angie Wieck at (701) 241-5501