By Rev. James D. Ek
My wife and I have spent about 27 years in prison ministry with incarcerated youth and another 5 years or so before that in ministry to the adult federal prison system. In all that time, we were congratulated for “being so brave and dedicated” in our efforts to reach out to those behind bars. That was nice and all, but we could have used more help rather than words of praise.
Look, I understand the hesitation about working with inmates. Before I was involved, I listened to witness speakers who extolled the virtues of caring for those convicted of crimes. I listened, but I was not ready to do the same. I had preconceived ideas about people behind bars. Yes, they were there for a reason. But that’s not why I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready because I thought “they” were not like me.
My wife, Patty, was the one who first responded to the witness talks with action. She had gone on a retreat weekend and there were letters on the weekend from “those people” that said “they” were praying for her. It touched her so much that she volunteered for a program at FCI (Federal Correctional Institute) Phoenix. She was working with women inmates.
Patty never pushed me to participate but she invited me to join her one weekend for a culmination of their program. Spouses could enter the facility on that occasion so in support of my wife, I went. I was not impressed with most of it. But one thing I noticed was how the women inmates in that group supported each other and appreciated the support of total strangers.
A month or so later was the Christmas season. Patty and I attended a Lutheran church service where the inmates could attend, with supervision, in order to perform as a prison choir. While waiting for the choir to arrive, a gentleman who volunteered at the men’s prison called me into the Narthex for a conversation. He asked me to participate in their program. I gently but decisively declined. But as we were talking, the prison bus arrived…
I watched the security men and women get off the bus first. Then I watched the women inmates get off, with assistance, because they were all shackled together at the waist and feet. I looked around the Narthex to see that I was alone. No one else witnessed this. But as I did, I recognized how de-humanizing it was. I knew that these women were coming to that place where they were going to be exposed as convicted criminals in a place where “good” people gather. I also knew that these women overcame their fears of exposure in order to give back to a community of volunteers who had reached out to them in their time of need.
And there they were, in the parking lot, shackled together, waiting to come into the sanctuary.
I was bemoaning man’s inhumanity to man when something unprecedented and non-procedural happened. One by one, security removed the shackles from each woman. This may not seem like much, but outside the prison, each inmate must be accompanied by a security person and policy requires shackles. And per policy, the state would not pay for security in instances like this, so each security person had volunteered their time so the women could participate. Now, they were taking a chance that an inmate would try to escape.
At that moment, my heart melted. The Lord showed me that if these men and women, who worked inside the prison to protect both us and the inmates, could show kindness, perhaps I should reconsider my views – my very worldview. Later that night, I sought out the man who invited me to work with the men’s prison inmates and I signed up.
A lot has changed in the 30 plus years that have passed. The number of prisons has grown. Most of the new prisons are private, for-profit, institutions. The word “correctional” in any of their titles is a misnomer if not an outright lie. Inmates are not reformed but warehoused. Inmates are still thought of as lower class. And volunteers are still hard to find.
For those of you who say you are not interested in prison ministry, consider this. You may be dealing with a worldview that marginalizes inmates. For those pastors who say, “I don’t feel called to prison ministry,” or “My time is taken up with tending my own flock,” let me ask you this: “Who needs help more than these?”
Prison ministry is not an interest or a calling. Prison ministry is a requirement.
“I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:36 Common English Bible)
Jesus refers to the hungry, the naked, and those in prison. If we are not dealing with those, we are not the sheep of his flock. Period.
That seems harsh, I know. But check out what Jesus says about Camels and needles and getting into heaven. That’s just as harsh – with a “Get Out of Jail Free” card attached.
“It’s impossible for human beings. But all things are possible for God.” (Matthew 19:26)
Prison Ministry takes no skill. Just show up. Talk with someone. You don’t have to evangelize or proselytize. These men and women seldom get visitors, even from family. Just go and talk – not with everyone – just pick one. Even if you are part of a church group visiting, pick one. Then go back and visit again, and again, and again. You don’t have to become friends. But it helps to be reliable.
That’s it! If you want more, get in touch with the Prison Reform Task Force. We’ll help you find a niche.
Rev. Jim Ek is a member of the Conference Prison Reform Task Force. If you would like to hear more about what the Conference is doing in this area or to serve on this team, please contact the Director of Outreach & Justice, Billie K. Fidln, at firstname.lastname@example.org.