The Body of Christ in Prison - Linda Pischke (National Catholic Reporter, Celebration Magazine, February 2003) There are over 2 million people in correctional facilities in the United States and many, if not the majority of them, are Christians - members of the body of Christ. Sentenced by the criminal justice system to pay for their transgressions, these men, women and young people are among the most despised of human beings, living outside the pale of compassion or even acknowledgment from the larger church community. And they are starving for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Just like everyone else Volunteers in prison ministry may be surprised to learn the percentage of hardened criminals in jails and prisons is very low. In fact, most inmates are just like everyone else. They have family issues and personal problems, and they have made mistakes in their lives. Often they are truly repentant. Christ tells us, in Matthew 25, that if we visit the imprisoned and minister to the "least of these," we will be blessed. To be effective in this ministry we must truly believe, in our hearts, that these individuals are the body of Christ and every one of them, whether a hardened criminal or a wounded victim, is created in God's image and deserving of dignity and love.
Families in crisis An estimated 200,000 prisoners are mentally ill. Substance abuse problems plague this population. Many have suffered lives of neglect and violence at the hands of their own families. Fifty percent come from households where an immediate family member was also incarcerated. Each prisoner represents one or more families in crisis. Mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, neighbors; we are all connected, in some way to the imprisoned and their victims. The social, financial, and emotional impact on our culture is devastating.
How can we minister?
When church members explore this mission field, they will find many opportunities to serve both within the prison system and in the community. In fact, the need is so great that many talents can be used. Here are just a few options:
Ministry to inmates: Music, Bible study and worship, visiting and letter writing are all important aspects of prison ministry. There is a great need for individuals who are bilingual.
Literacy volunteers: Over half of all prisoners are functionally illiterate when measured against a sixth-grade reading level.
Support to families of prisoners: Perhaps there is someone in your church or community who is unable to visit their loved one because they lack transportation to the jail or prison.
Youth outreach: Many ministries offer special children's programs. Project Angel Tree is a well known outreach that provides Christmas gifts to children of the incarcerated.
Re-entry programs: Recent studies indicate as many as 75 percent of US inmates will return to the prison system after release. A church can sponsor ex-offenders to help them get jobs, find housing and become reintegrated to the community.
Restorative Justice: This community-based program offers mediation for nonviolent offenders and their victims. The goal is to keep first time offenders from entering the prison system and becoming repeat offenders.
Victim assistance: Individuals who have been victimized by crime are often overlooked in the community. It is the responsibility of the church to reach out to those who hurt and care for them spiritually and financially.
Begin with prayer. Pray for prisoners, families, victims and those who care for the imprisoned. Reflect on the possibility that God may be calling you to volunteer. Pray for discernment and the direction your ministry will take. Prison ministry requires a high level of commitment.
Visit a jail or prison in your area and ask the administration about their religious programs. Make an appointment with the chaplain. Find out what you can do to help. It is easier to begin a prison outreach by participating in an established ministry. Each institution has its own rules and you can learn those rules more effectively from someone who has experience.
Research online programs. Organizations such as Prison Fellowship, www.pfm.org, have excellent resources with volunteer training and links to local communities.
"You don't have to have a Ph.D. in anything to minister to prisoners" said Father Joe Waner, a former jail chaplain in Waukesha, Wisconsin. "Just be a human being. Prisoners need something to gentle their souls so that they can hear the voice of God. Anything you might have to offer out of your love for Jesus Christ is a gift to these individuals."