Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Healing Communities: A Journey into Prison Ministry

People ask me how I met my husband and the answer is simple: we met at Asbury Theological Seminary, in Wilmore, Kentucky, as incoming students in the fall of 1977. I was from Baltimore and he was from Texas, and we met at the new-students picnic.

What people don’t know is where Mike and I had our first date: it was at the men’s correctional institution in Lexington, Kentucky. What a romantic couple! We both volunteered to teach a Bible class at the prison, and since I had a car, I drove us.

Off we went to this forbidding-looking cement building with numerous layers of barbed wire fencing. I went with apprehension since I had never been in a prison before; but I agreed to do this because of the clear mandate of Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you came to me.” Going with this nice young man from Texas was an added bonus.

Deep emotional and spiritual pain

That night my eyes were opened to the vast need in this area of ministry.  The inmates were living in crowded conditions with limited services, and there was deep emotional and spiritual pain.  The visitation was as important as the Bible study class, because the inmates wanted so much to talk and have someone listen to them.

I had little contact with prison ministry again until the years when I served as the pastor of Christ Church of the Deaf UMC in Baltimore. One Sunday morning as I came into the church I saw the hands of some Deaf members moving excitedly. As I looked more carefully I kept seeing the sign for “murder.” They explained to me that a Deaf young man was arrested for burglary and murder in western Maryland. A newspaper clipping was thrust into my hand. I stared down at the picture of a pleasant, blond-haired young adult, and the story of what he allegedly did was shocking and gruesome.

As it turned out, this Deaf man was convicted and sent to prison in Baltimore, but folks who had been ministering to him at the detention center sent word to me that he needed spiritual guidance. After numerous attempts I finally was able to meet him, and in time our contact spawned a weekly Bible study class.

I and a number of faithful volunteers taught this class for 14 years for the Deaf inmates at this institution. I learned that the Matthew 25:36 part of the ministry--visiting and teaching inmates--is only the tip of the iceberg. As important as this basic aspect is, there is much more ministry to be done, as Christ calls us to also engage in a quest for Restorative Justice.

The week before Christmas one year a Deaf inmate I had been teaching in Bible study for several years was released. What a surprise Christmas gift! But ministering to a newly released inmate becomes the rest of Matthew 25. Food, drink, shelter, clothing, first haircut, and interpreting at the halfway house were among the gifts of compassion that the church and I were able to provide during those early months after his release.

'I was a stranger and you welcomed me'

The harder part was the call to “welcome.” Jesus clearly says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” How about, “I was a convicted pedophile and you welcomed me?” That was another step altogether as the church struggled with acceptance. Yet, they did their part to assist him as he honored his covenant of accountability.

Aftercare is one of the most neglected parts of prison ministry and probably the most important because it can affect a person’s future. Many released inmates end up back in prison because they were not able to “make it” on the other side. Churches that do prison ministry inside (teaching Bible classes, anger management classes, Kairos encounter weekends, etc.) need to do ministry outside as well, helping returning ex-inmates to find jobs, housing, transportation, education and training, and to find supportive community.

Please consider attending the Eastern PA Conference's Healing Communities workshop on Oct. 10 to find out more about the needs and possibilities that Matthew 25-minded churches can address, even on a small scale.

You may also want to join our conference's Prison Ministry & Restorative Justice Team's new effort to send signed Christmas cards to inmates. We need congregations and groups to print and sign pre-designed Christmas cards for the team to deliver to area correctional facilities for inmates there. For many who have no contact with outside family or friends, it may be the only Christmas greetings they will receive. Contact Marilyn Schneider, team chairperson, for more information (

Prison ministry includes assisting families

Prison ministry also includes assisting families of those who are incarcerated. Many of our churches give Christmas gifts through the Angel Tree ministry started by Chuck Colson's prison outreach program. Children receive gifts through the generosity of church members who take tag-board "angels" off the tree and buy the listed items. The gifts are presented to delighted children as gifts from their absent, incarcerated parents.

Beyond Christmas, however, these families need support throughout the year in a plethora of ways. Kairos Outside is a Walk-to-Emmaus-type program designed to meet the spiritual needs of women waiting for their incarcerated loved ones. Churches can provide support groups for family members, help them prepare for their loved ones' re-entry, and provide transportation or child care to accommodate visits to the prison. There is no end to the many ministry needs and possibilities in this part of God's vineyard.

And never forget the power of your voice as you speak out against mass incarceration and in favor of more humane prison systems, an end to continuous, life-draining solitary confinement, and the abolishment of the death penalty. Christians can do much to support better laws and programs that can truly bring about restorative justice and mercy for all.

I hope that every church and mission connexion will find some way to be involved in prison ministry and restorative justice on a regular basis. It is a mandate from our Lord. The fields are ripe for harvest among the vast numbers of people--inside and outside--who are affected by our nation's criminal justice system. This can be a redemptive, healing journey worth taking into the very heart of Christ's call.

Bishop Peggy Johnson

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