By Reverend Gene Barnes, Retired
I would begin by saying we, because from the beginning, this has been a journey which my wife Karen and I shared as we became active in prison ministry. So it was the merging of several experiences that set the stage for this calling to coalesce in our lives. We are retired United Methodist pastors. We moved here from the mid-west in 1999.
The experience which opened our eyes to women in prison came about through our sharing in a series of educational ventures within Perryville Prison. During these conversations we were challenged to see these women in a more personal way and to consider some of their needs.
As we got to know several of them, it transformed our view of them, from those women in prison to women we knew by name, strengthened by glimpses of their life stories. It was through these bits of conversation that the desire to support them was kindled within us. Before long, it became a passion to support and assist them after they were released. This was especially true for those who had no real means of family or community to support them upon reentry and the myriad of obstacles they would face.
Another underlying reason was our deep concern about how God’s call for justice and loving neighbors are often merged and manifest in society and our everyday lives. As we seek to live out our faith, faithfulness is not simply a self-centered endeavor, it is an engagement of the unjust and unloving ways our society affects the lives of others.
At first, we were somewhat surprised by the impact these visits had upon us. But as Karen and I became more deeply involved, we began to explore ways in which we could become more helpful through a ministry based in our congregation, Red Mountain United Methodist Church. We formed the enterprise as Matthew 25:36 Prison Ministry. It is curious how we, given a new situation, reconsider a particular biblical text and after many readings it begins to resonate with a new sense of call in our lives.
Matthew 25:34-40 is an eloquent account of Jesus as he anticipates the end times and the gathering of the nations for judgment. His words evoke images concerning how we have dealt with the last, the least, and the lost, and even more, as we listen with our hearts;
34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;
35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’
37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’
40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:34-40 (NRSV)
Sometimes, it seems, we read a scripture and wait for it to engage us in some particular way. Other times, we become engaged in the world and in the lives of others and are reminded of a scripture which impassions our involvement and leads us deeper into living more faithfully. On our own, this would be an overwhelming venture.
We were able to avoid such a risk by inviting our congregation to join us on this journey of faith. You can’t believe how they are responding. We have the support of our pastoral team led by Pastor Mary Bullis, and the staff of our church, the United Methodist Women, our Matthew 25:36 Prison Ministry Team, and more than forty women who serve as Pen Pals. They have corresponded with nearly 100 women in Perryville during the current year. Several other women from the community are also joining us in this faith venture as well. Our congregation has funded this growing and dynamic ministry with a generosity of prayers and financial gifts!
We are partnering with organizations and people who add to the dynamic:
- “Open Arms” Team: We are grateful for Charlene and Romelle who meet women as they are released from prison. Then they spend the day helping them through the tasks of reentry, with a lunch, securing identity cards, bus passes, meetings with probation officers and a variety of personal needs before transporting them to a half-way house.
- AWEE – Arizona Women’s Education and Employment: is partnering with us to provide Peer Counseling training, other ancillary guidance and support for eventual placement in a job which pays a living wage and health care benefits. We support this educational venture with $2,500 for each woman. We have five women in the process presently.
- Education Office – Department of Corrections: We partner with the Education Department to provide GED testing and certification – $2,000 for 20 women to complete the GED class.
We see opportunities in the near future to partner with other organizations as well. We know there is a need for initiatives which seek to create a more just criminal justice system and to find alternatives to the present mandated sentencing. Increased rates of incarceration and continued recidivism only result in building more prisons. It is our growing conviction that Arizona needs to emulate some of the changes other states are implementing.
- States have also begun to shorten probation and reduce the number of people sent to prison for technical violations, such as missing appointments.
- Some states are providing extensive educational benefits to inmates as a hedge against the possibilities of recidivism.
Imagine, if you will, what could happen if we could encourage and enable several other churches across the valley and the state where prisons are located, to consider such a ministry! For more information and some next steps contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.