“I was beaten with a braided extension cord by my mother, who ran a bootleg house.” Pastor Tony Lowden, executive director at Stone Academy, shared with the room full of prison chaplains and ministry staff. He raised this puzzling question: “Why did I escape the imprisonment every other male member of my family has experienced?”
His answer? “I got hung up on a nail.” The nail of God’s love which held Jesus to the Cross, the only sure anchor in this life, saved him from his seemingly certain incarcerated future.Lowden’s was among the many strong and compassionate voices speaking this past weekend at the Correctional Ministries and Chaplains Association Summit in Atlanta, Georgia. I spent 48 hours as a newbie to correctional ministry soaking up astounding statistics and stories about the impact these ministries are having on real people. I wept with others over songs shared by the Lee Arrendale Women’s Prison Choir. I sat under men and women solidly secure in their belief that the Gospel is the only story that offers true hope to the dark reality of incarcerated men and women in America.
How did I come to be in this place? The whole story would require an additional blog. For now, let’s just say that a gentle, quiet question started forming in me about two years ago, “Should I become involved in prison ministry in some way, shape, or form?” I know I have teaching gifts, which I’ve used for over 25 years in white, middle class churches and beyond. Should I try to use them in a different culture?
I did what I encourage my coaching clients to do—prayed, listened (to God and others), sought, waited. Last fall, an opportunity came to join a team of four delightful women, who, like me, don’t know much about correctional ministry (that’s the phrase that includes prison/jail/re-entry ministry) except that we have some gifts and want to help.
I am learning so much! And I’m so eager to share with you. So, here are five (out of about 50) at first surprising but really unsurprising things about correctional ministry.
Are prisoners people too?
Too often, we see mug shots or read stories of a crime in the paper, and we jump to a conclusion. Thug. Druggie. Evil. Our labels may be partially accurate, but they don’t tell the whole story.
One morning at the jail, after the worship service, we rode the elevator down with the inmates. The tall, freckle-faced young woman in the orange jumpsuit had her pretty red hair pulled back in a high ponytail. She eagerly told us about all the books she had been reading while recovering from an injury in the infirmary. I could not shake the thought—I could as easily be in my living room listening to one of the girls on my daughter’s volleyball team.
I need to recall: Every incarcerated person is created in the image of God and bears his glory, no matter how well disguised it is by evil.
What do the incarcerated need most?
Mark Casson, executive director of Metanoia Ministries, a highly effective mentoring and re-entry program, graciously gave me an hour of his time. He posed this question of me.
As I searched my mind for the answer—“Car? Job? House?” he interjected.
“The Church!” He quoted Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” At first, I wondered—“Is he being practical?” But he explained that in churches, many “returning citizens” will not only be encouraged by the gospel, but will also be connected to resources for practical needs.
Which “culture” is more spiritual? Prison or the rest of the country outside prison bars?
Prison! In a spot-on workshop on re-entry, Mark explained that prison often affords many hours for Bible reading and praying. At the same time, it protects the prisoner from some of the temptations presented in American culture. He added that many incarcerated people may often experience rapid spiritual growth because of the time they spend in God’s Word.
“Who’s the guy?”
Dr. Harold Trulear, of Healing Communities, pointed out that nine times out of 10—yes, he said nine times out of 10—when women are incarcerated, there is a guy involved. Not only are women prostituted by men, they also run drugs or buy guns for men. He added that where a man was not directly involved, emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse by men often influences women’s crimes.
How can we help?
You may not have a calling to correctional ministry, but all Christians are called to play a vital role. Here are some things you can do:
- Pray. Pray against the enemy and evil. Pray for …
- the incarcerated and victims of crime
- families and children of incarcerated and victims
- correctional officers
- Help by not helping. Rob Kendall, director of Against the Grain (https://www.atghope.org), exhorted us, “Don’t do things for people they can do for themselves,” but encourage as they work through their own struggles.
- Learn more. Prison Fellowship has one of the largest correctional ministry outreaches in the country. On their website, you can learn about prison reform, restorative justice, and more.
I was talking to a wizened African-American woman, a coordinator of programs at a prison in Michigan. I explained that I was new to the conference and correctional ministry, but that I had been teaching Bible study in church for many years. She leaned over and took my arm and said, “You know, honey, you’ve been teaching prisoners, too. We’re all prisoners of sin.” What a wonderful encouragement to us all to continue to bring the hope of the gospel wherever we go.