Sermon August 28, 2016
Prison Ministry Matthew 25: 31-40
The words of Matthew 25 about visiting the prisoners have challenged me throughout my ministry. I have made various stabs at prison ministry: a jail class in seminary, almost doing a CPE at Vacaville Prison ( I chickened out) and numerous visits over the years to persons I knew in prison or jail and recently being a mentor for Sponsors. One of the things the jail chaplain who taught my seminary class said has stuck with me. “ You are not bring Christ and the church to the prison. Christ and the church are already there. Just look for them.” All across the country there are jail and prison ministries doing just that. This morning I invite you to look with me at two aspects of ministry with prisoners. One is a personal level, one is societal.
1. On the personal level, each of us, if we so choose can make a difference in a prisoner’s life. One the things that prisons and jails do is to separate persons from the rest of society in ways that often dehumanize them. Spoon Jackson, who was incarcerated at age 20 for life without parole has written,
“ No cage, physical, mental or spiritual can be my home.” For him letters were so very important, “Letters were like blood veins or lifelines: I lived through them and only ate and slept in prison.” (p. 79 By Heart Poetry, Prison and Two Lives by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson , New village Press, Oakland, CA , 2010)
Writing letters, visiting when possible someone in prison helps them to know that they are still human beings and that someone cares about them. These personal connections are a way of being in ministry, sharing the love of Christ.
Spoon Jackson is also a poet and writes about the importance of relationships:
“ For self rehabilitation or any kind of restorative work to succeed there must be constant contact and exchange with the public, people of all ages, colors, and cultures. There must be continuous dialog and programs that put mirrors up to everyone’s faces not just the prisoners.” ( p. 86)
Because incarceration is a traumatic experience, there is always need for ministries which foster relationship, healing and hope during and after the experience.
There is also another reason to make personal connections. Prisons and jails tend to want to keep regular citizens out. Yet, it is important for us to stay aware of what is happening in our prisons and jails. Even when they are sometimes contracted out to private industries, they are still part of our public criminal justice system. When we are aware of what happens in our prisons, juvenile detention centers and jails, then we can help keep those in power more accountable. We can make sure prisoners are treated in humane ways.
2, This brings me to the second aspect of prison ministry. I think as citizens of this land and persons of faith, we can make a difference. Currently we have the highest incarceration rate of any country on earth and those incarcerated are disproportionally men of color and lower incomes. Many of the persons in prisons and jails are there for nonviolent drug related crimes.
Basically, right now our system of prisons is based upon retribution rather than restoration. In other words prisons are designed only to punish people not to restore people to more productive lives or to bring about reconciliation or help for the victims of crimes. Judith Tannenbaum suggests one way to understand what our current prison system does. Think of the worst thing you ever did in your life. Now imagine that it is that act that defines all of your life: where and how you will live and what others think of you. This is what our current system does to people. The harshness of much of our prison system only produces more harshness among prisoners and guards. Yet, people are not truly only that one or more bad things they have done. They are complex human beings.
Spoon Jackson described it like this:“ On the prison yard I kept my mask on, my dark shades, non-smiling, dead-eyed gaze and silence.”
His experience is an example of a system that becomes dehumanizing. His sentence at age 20 of life without parole for an unpremeditated killing, was a product of an unjust system. And in the years since he has discovered his inner soul, become a recognized poet, taught others poetry and mostly kept out of trouble in places with much violence, Yet, he still cannot get the “without parole” part of his sentence overturned. Such unjust situations are not unusual in our current criminal justice system. Young lives that could benefit from some sort of accountability after committing a crime, become caught up in a system of punishment that can breed bitterness and resentment.
It was an arts program and access to books and writing letters that helped Spoon develop an inner life and core that allows him to most of the time overcome the bitter system. Yet, such programs which offer prisoners ways to grow in their inner being, to discover their human creativity and express it in positive ways are often cut from jails and prisons or encounter difficult road blocks.
As persons of faith and citizens of this country we need to pay attention and can advocate for such programs and ways of running our jails and prisons that are more just and humane.
Another reason to pay attention to our criminal justice system is that often times the ways we have been running it have not produced what we might hope for as Christian persons. For some communities, particularly poor and black communities, the prison system has had negative consequences for the whole community not just the inmates. Criminologist Todd Clear argues that there is a point at which cracking down on crime and increased incarceration starts to actually make things worse.
For example “ A very high percentage of the men who get sent to prison .. are fathers… And the effect on a child of having a father sent away to prison is devastating. Some criminals are lousy fathers… But many are not. Their earnings- both from crime and legal jobs- help support their families. For a child , losing a father to prison is an undesirable difficulty. Having parent incarcerated increases a child’s chances of juvenile delinquency between 300 and 400 percent; it increases the odds of serious psychiatric disorder by 250 %. ( p. 245 Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, NY: Little , Brown and Co, 2013)
There are also consequences for the community when persons get out of prison with fewer job opportunities, perhaps psychological damage and trauma and loss of friends and positive connections. The point is that if we lock up too many people for too long, the collateral damage starts to outweigh the benefit.
One of the movements that has been helping to create alternatives to prison sentences and to help those in prisons find new lives is that of restorative justice. This movement recognizes that prisoners are complex human beings like the rest of us. It seeks to work with our court systems and judges , especially in the juvenile justice system and for first time offenders to find ways for the persons committing the crime to provide restitution or alternative sentencing such as drug treatment programs. It also works to provide programs to help inmates restore their lives. Often these programs include mediation with the victims of the crimes and the offender or ways for persons to return to society such as our local Sponsors program. The Unite Methodist Women recently had a mission study about this alternative approach and our general church has several programs involved in it. For those who are interested I will show a short video after about a program in PA. It is also on our facebook page.
Finally, prison ministry can also be a ministry of planting seeds of love and kindness. Judith Tannenbaum is a poet and teacher who has taught in various prison settings and with youth programs. She taught in an alternative school where the youth in her ninth grade class told her they expected to be in prison at some point in their lives. She struggled with this idea. One day she asked one of her inmate students about it.
“ Will had taken advantage of the vocational training programs prisons had at that time and had already been offered two well paying jobs for when he got out. I visited Will and asked him about what the continuation high school students had told me.
“ They’re right” He said , “ I wouldn’t listen to anyone when I was their age either.” I must have looked hopeless.
“ But,” Will added, “ Adults never stopped talking to me, planting seeds. And when it was time for those seeds to sprout, they did, even though I was in prison. I doubt I’d have been able to make the changes I made if no one had planted those seeds.” ( p. 127 By Heart)
Maybe this is one way of looking at prison ministry. We may not be able to change the system overnight or make it all better for someone in prison, but we can plant seeds. We can plant seeds of caring through the simple act of writing a letter to a prisoner or visiting someone in jail. We can plant seeds of positive change by getting to know who runs our local jail and advocating for programs that will help the inmates there. We can plant seeds by looking around at the youth of our community and finding ways to let them know we care about them. We can plant seeds by learning more about our criminal justice system and advocating for ways to make it more just, humane and accountable. We can plant seeds by putting prisoners and their families on our prayer lists and remembering them to God regularly.
We believe in grace, that we believe that God can transform people’s lives. We say that we think God loves each person and calls us to treat everyone with respect and dignity. Therefore, it is our faith that calls us to work for a more humane and equitable criminal justice system and hold our prisons and jails accountable to humane treatment of everyone. It is our faith that invites us to make connections with persons in jail and prison and let them know that they matter as human beings. There is a card here today we can send to someone whose mother just died and who has ended up in jail.
This ministry may not be the one that is tugging at your heart. You may not be called by God to use your gifts in this way. Yet, I invite each of us here today to consider one way you can plant a seed of grace and love in the life of another person. The prison poetry teacher Judith Tannenbaum looked out at the creative, interesting men in her class at San Quentin and wondered- What if a teacher or a parent or an aunt or a grandma had seen the potential and gifts in each of them when they were still children? Could they have avoided the pain of crime and prison?
Prison Ministries Opportunities
Kairos Ministries kairosoforegon.weebly.com:
On any given Kairos Inside program you may find our guests to be of the Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Atheist, Wiccan, non-specified or other beliefs. We welcome all.Our Kairos Inside program currently operates in 350 prisons in 31 states in the U. S. and 8 additional countries: United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Honduras, Nicaragua, Peru and Canada. More than 170,000 incarcerated men and women have been introduced to Kairos, since its inception. The current number of volunteers exceeds 20,000 per year.
We have been given permission to start at Snake River CI in Ontario,OR.
UPDATE: We have a gentleman and some others from the Eastern Oregon area that are interestedin planning for going Inside with a team. They are starting the search for housing for team and recruiting volunteers . If you want to help , be sure to mail Kevin Mallon on contact page.
What would you do if your husband, father, son, daughter, mother or any loved one, through some bad choices, found themselves imprisoned. Thousands of women from around this country are dealing with this very issue right now. They are alone, scared, ridiculed by society and feel they have nowhere to turn. They are mentally, emotionally and spiritually serving time alongside their loved ones. As a result, Kairos Outside Prison Ministry was developed to meet these women’s needs.
Our next Kairos Outside Weekend will be held October 21-23,2016
Please pray for us. If you would like to to attend the weekend as a guest or serve , please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Prison Fellowship prisonfellowship.org:
Prison Fellowship seeks to restore those affected by crime and incarceration by introducing prisoners, victims, and their families to a new hope available through Jesus Christ. We accomplish this by training and inspiring churches and communities—inside and outside of prison —to support the restoration of those affected by incarceration. We equip wardens, prison staff, and volunteers, including men and women serving time, to create safer, more rehabilitative prisons that prepare prisoners to return to their communities as good neighbors. We advocate for a criminal justice system that upholds restorative values, so that communities are safer, victims are respected, and those who have caused harm are transformed. Outside prisons, we collaborate with churches, para-church organizations, and local service providers to support families with loved ones behind bars and people affected by crime.
SPONSORS MISSION STATEMENT:
To assist men and women from Lane County released from Oregon state correctional facilities and the Lane County Jail in making a successful reentry into our community. Our success results in:
· A safer community
· The reunification of families and children
· The establishment of the released offender as a positive role model for his/her children
· Citizens who pay taxes and are contributing, productive members of the community.
Sponsors is nationally recognized as a model utilizing best practices in reentry services.