Incarcerated Incarnation

Prison ministry is something I feel the church does not do very well. Sure, I’ve heard of pastors visiting people who have been incarcerated, providing chaplaincy services, counseling some who have been released, but as a whole, I don’t think those of us in the mainline church do prison ministry very well.  When you look at the names of most prison ministries, they are run by more fundamentalist churches, more conservative in theology and thought.  It makes sense: for those turning away from a life that has been strewn with drugs, alcohol, and crime, the message of a new life in Christ, of being saved, of gaining eternal life when the world has damned you is very appealing.

But what about those for whom the punishment does not fit the crime, those for whom a system of injustice has required incarceration as payment for the sins of society, or for those who simply do not draw from that theological framework but are seeking counseling, guidance, and transformation in their lives?

As I scroll through the pages of prison ministry sites—chaplaincies, counseling, support groups, halfway houses and support after incarceration—I have yet to find a single one anywhere around me or in surrounding areas that is supported by a mainline congregation.

All of this is very close to my heart because my father was incarcerated 4 times in my young adult life, from the time I was 16 until I was 24.  My father broke the law—there is no argument there.  My father had an addiction (and still has, as a recovering alcoholic).  But the programs offered for his therapy and recovery were all based in conservative Christian ministries.  My father doesn’t talk much about it, but he did not want to go to Alcoholics Anonymous because of the leaders’ insistence on certain beliefs in Christ.  My dad is very private about his faith and beliefs, but the Christian programs offered did not offer him the transformation needed.

What did seem to work, finally, were the job-training programs available at the minimum security facility he was last at.  They taught woodworking to basic computer skills.  The sense that there was still the possibility for new opportunities after prison gave my father the new life he needed.

What if those of us with more progressive, liberal, or emergent theologies could craft a ministry that truly connected with those in, and just coming out of, incarceration that not only spoke to the promise of new life in Christ but also gave opportunities for that new life to thrive?

Does our fear hold us back?  Are we afraid of those who have violently offended of committing that offense against us or someone we love?  This is a real fear and not something that should be brushed aside.  But there are many others who have been incarcerated for other crimes that did not include violence, and the label of ex-con or the notoriety of the crime prevents them from having another try at a good life.

There is also a need for ministry to the families of those incarcerated.  I grew up in a small town.  My father’s name was listed in the local “Police Beat” section of our paper more than once.  It was known, and it was embarrassing, but no one talked to us about it.  Not our teachers, school counselors, nor anyone in our church besides our pastor (who was very good about ministering to us).

Christmas is a time when families gather and celebrate the birth of Christ, or Santa, or simply time to be together as family.  As Christians we pause and reflect upon the Word becoming Flesh, Emmanuel, God With Us.  For many families, Christmas is when you go to prison to visit your family member.

I remember standing with my brother in the entry point.  We handed over our state-issued ID’s and waited as our backgrounds were checked.  Then we emptied our pockets and handed over our winter jackets.  Walking through the metal detectors, we were considered cleared for entry and the guards took us out the back door to a van that was running (it was -20 degrees, so they gave us our coats back as we quickly stepped from warmth to cold to warmth again).  We got into the van and waited with one guard while another got into the driver’s seat.  The guard sitting with us was friendly and asked who we were visiting.  When we told him, he said to us, “He’s a good man, your father.”

Those words from that guard broke into my heart.  I hated going to visit my dad in prison.  I hated the stigma, I hated the encounter of emotions and I hated seeing my dad where he seemed helpless and hopeless.  But those words reminded me that not only was the man I was visiting my dad, he was also a good man, who had made some mistakes in his life and had some struggles that I didn’t understand.

Christ gives us all the opportunity for new life.  But we, as participants in the reign of God, as Christians, need to extend that invitation and provide the opportunities to share in that new life here and now.  And as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also remember Christ’s death, in a criminal system of injustice—and upon the cross, Christ offers the promise of new life to one of those crucified with him.  We ought to do as much, here on earth.