Prison Ministry: The Church at the "Cutting Edge"
by Marian Styles-McClintock
The day before Thanksgiving, the St. Phillips United Methodist Church, Patterson, New Jersey, serves its annual Thanksgiving luncheon for the community. This past year, a young woman walked into the church accompanied by two young men. With a broad smile, she proudly announced that she has just left court with her son and that all the drug charges against him had been dropped. Everyone applauded. I thought of the men I recently visited at Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York and Dan River Prison in Yanceyville, North Carolina. I was pleased that this young man would not become another of the nearly 2 million inmates in the federal or state prisons of this country. But I was concerned that if he was dealing in drugs, would he continue to do so? What role could this church play in his future?
St. Phillips United Methodist Church is a community resource, among several such institutions, in a poverty stricken, drug-infested urban community with low self-esteem. It provides food for the hungry, spiritual growth opportunities for the soul, an after-school program, a health program coordinated with a local hospital, and leadership training for drug or alcohol dependent persons. How do we connect community ministries like these with the dedicated church folks concerned about their neighbors in prison and the prisoners' families? How do we respond to victims of crime in our neighborhoods and churches? How do we include criminal justice reform in our justice-seeking agenda?
As I reflect on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:30-37), I feel each United Methodist congregation could place itself in the story. Victims and offenders abound, on our streets and in our prisons. One step is to learn what our brothers and sisters in other places are doing. There are many models and inspiring signs of hope to be found.
Looking specifically at the prison system, we can find numerous "churches within the walls". Inmates organize communities of caring rooted in shared faith and religious practice; chaplains and other inmates are their mentors and spiritual leaders. Local congregations may develop strong relationships with some of these faith groups. For example, The New York Theological Seminary has offered a Masters degree program at Sing Sing Prison for 18 years. More recently, they have offered a one-year certificate program in religious studies. Graduates of this program are now organizing similar programs in several other correctional facilities in New York State. The two North Carolina Annual Conferences have developed and resourced Disciples Bible Study and/or Disciples Covenant groups in every prison in North Carolina. The Oklahoma Conference has nurtured a state-wide ministry which ranges from visitation to pre-release and transitional ministries with offenders and their families. A congregation of ex-offenders and their families has emerged from this sustained mission effort.
Outside the prison walls, there is also much to celebrate. Former inmates in New York and Philadelphia have organized themselves to provide services for others coming out of prison. Their ministries include pre-release services, mentoring, and counseling. The New York Conference has a program to encourage local congregations to "adopt" an inmate who is about to be released. Inmates nearing release express appreciation for such services, but they are concerned about meeting the basic needs of their families after release: housing, clothing, food and meaningful work. Such services combat recidivism and reduce imprisonment for parole violations that are the frequent result of the frustration former inmates experience with the lack of employment and the basics of life.
In each of the 66 Annual Conferences in the United States, there are numerous and varied local church prison ministries. Several Central Conferences in Europe, Africa, and Latin America have prison or justice ministries that respond to their contexts. There are 100 community centers and many community developers; there are also the program commitments of many congregations who participate in 331 Shalom Zones. Justice-seeking and prison ministries are integral parts of some local Holy Boldness, Hispanic, Native American, and Strengthening the Black Church Initiatives. These ministries include focuses on at-risk youth, economic and community development, family services, as well as comprehensive ministries within and outside the prisons.
Some local United Methodist churches have organized prison visitation or visitor hospitality programs, Bible study in the prison, and various approaches to pre-release, transitional, and after- care ministries for offenders and their families. Some local churches have developed their ministries based upon restorative justice principles and practices. These congregations are engaged in victim-offender reconciliation, sentencing circle, mediation, and healing circles; In Minnesota, Vermont, and Maine, there are congregations engaged in community capacity-building strategies that seek to create a restorative justice alternative to the criminal justice system at the neighborhood level.
This is the "cutting edge" for ministries which our churches might well consider if they would expand their witness and service. More congregations need to become involved in meeting the complex needs and frustrations of men and women leaving prison. After all, 80% or more of the 2 million prisoners now "doing time" will be leaving their prison cell within the next few years. After-care and job development loom as an area of prison ministry calling for the creative commitment of the Church. Model programs have developed in the Oklahoma Conference, Central Pennsylvania Conference, and some ecumenical and community center programs. Perhaps the most critical aspect of transition back into society as constructive citizens is the involvement of ex-offenders and their families in the full life of a local congregation. This is a challenge to each of our local congregations.
Clearly, there are no simple answers. However, congregations who have become engaged in prison/restorative justice ministries testify to the transformation they have experienced as they became involved in transforming ministries among prisoners and their families and/or in seeking to reform the criminal justice system. Since there are victims of crime, offenders, as well as families of victims and offenders in every community, none of us can close our hearts or avert our eyes to the challenge of restorative justice / prison ministry. There is a continuum of ministry to which we are called. Let us rejoice, be thankful, and be engaged in some form of mission and ministry to "the least of these". United Methodist congregations are a resource in their community. They can find room in their hearts for the prisoners, their victims and their families. For all are our neighbors!
Date posted: Feb 22, 2000