Prison Ministry

[1] Again this year, in our Lutheran congregations and in varied and diverse pastoral settings we will proclaim and announce the central message of Easter – the Lord Is Risen Indeed. Some will hear this message and intellectually conceptualize it as an abstract given in their faith. Others have come to know the reality of the Easter message as a result of a ‘death’ experience in their life. This may come in any form. It may be the death of a loved one; it may be the death of a relationship; it may be the death of part of our body; it may the death or eroding of our skills or senses.

[2] The integration of the powerful language of Easter into our everyday life in the midst of our ‘death’ experiences allows us to live with ourselves, others and our God in the hope and reality of a new life that frees us from the claims and bonds of all forms of death.

[3] The powerful theological images of resurrection, redemption, hope and freedom take on special significance for those who live daily in the midst of locks, brick walls, steel doors, razor wire and regimented schedules. As a prison chaplain for 31 years I learned the realization of the significance of those concepts from those whom I was called to serve.

[4] I reflect on my journey in prison ministry. Upon responding to the ‘Call’ of prison chaplaincy, I had to meet groups of peers to ascertain my readiness and credentials for this unique ministry. As a young, 29-year-old pastor, I found I could give intellectual and theological articulation to the images and language of Easter. But in my youth, I had not yet expressed or felt the impact of the death of my father, the depression that invaded our family, the moves that brought disruption of family life, the diminishing capacity of my own energies and the harsh reality of working daily in the prison environment.

[5] In the late ’60s, there was Billy Joe! He was an articulate, middle-aged Black man. He had shared with me the pain of years of prejudice and the memories and nightmares he had of lynchings in his home area of the South. He shared his constant struggle to ‘let go’ of some of that so he could live life in relationship with all.

[6] Then he found himself drawn into an unhealthy relationship with a white female volunteer at the prison. He didn’t use this relationship. He didn’t exploit it. One day he came to me and said. “Rev, I have something that is bigger than me – something that I can’t handle.” We talked about and through it. I was able to have the lady and her husband look at and consider some of the dynamics that were manifesting themselves in their marriage.

[7] Billy Joe told me he could never have done this without knowing and experiencing what it meant for him to be a child of God – to be able to forgive – to be able to know the freedom of not needing to hate, use and exploit. A man in prison whose chains had been shattered by the images of Easter!

[8] Then in the late ’70s there was John – a non-present accomplice to the killing of a police officer. It was during my first few weeks of work in a maximum security penitentiary that I first met John. My newly acquired office contained the residue of James Hoffa’s prison library. My fellow chaplain let his office be used as a hang out for the “Good Fellows.” The lieutenant told me which inmates would use me and how to identify gang members by their body markings. My paranoia ceased to be healthy.

[9] John was doing a very, very long sentence. He had already done ten years when I met him. One day he came into my office and through his perpetual grin he said, “Rev you ought not be hiding any longer.” It was an epiphany for me, as I realized my fear had trapped me in my office. He became my guide and entry into the prison population.

[10] He had befriended and gave support to new and frightened inmates entering this austere environment for the first time. His presence always provided a sense of strength and calmness to the inmate Christian community.

[11] I asked John one day, “How do you keep your smile, your equilibrium in the midst of all this garbage going on about you and with the time you are doing?” He grinned, “Rev – come on now – of all people I should not need to explain that to you!”

[12] He went on to share how after much pain and agony he had carried around for so long, he had been able to “unload” to his Lord. He commented, “His death and resurrection was to set me free – not from the prison here all about me but from the prison my heart had been kept in”.

[13] Some ten years later, John called me one day. He wanted to share with me that he had been paroled a few years back and had just graduated with honors from the law school of a prestigious university. I could almost see his grin over the phone as he asked for a letter of reference.

[14] In the early ’80s there was Will. He had been a respected business man in his community and a member of the Board of Deacons at the church he and his family attended. His company begin to experience some rough times. He admits he used some bad judgment when, along with two others, they ‘adjusted their income and tax filings.’ Now he was sitting on his bunk in a small 8′ x 10′ cubicle at a Federal Prison Camp.

[15] He arrived distraught with guilt and shame. He was particularly remorseful about the shame he felt he had brought upon his family, business and church associations over the last year. He developed a deep spiritual relationship with an 82-year-old Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor who, with his wife, came to visit the men at the prison camp. The pastor became the father Will never had. Within boundaries and limits we worked hard on setting as the relationship progressed, one could see Will ‘coming out of himself.’ Within this relationship he was able to experience acceptance, forgiveness and begin to feel genuine worth. Will was able to verbalize what he felt and what he came to experience with this visiting pastor – God has come in Christ to bring about reconciliation with Himself, others and “above all within myself.”

[16] The message and language of Easter frees us from the bonds and claims of sin, death, evil, and destruction. There are few places on earth where this has a more profound impact than upon those who live daily surrounded by the concrete reality of all that symbolizes physical bondage – Easter in Prison.