The Bible makes it clear that Jesus was passionate about the people on the margins. From his first statement of his ministry (Luke 4:18-19) to his teaching about separating the “sheep” and the “goats” (Matthew 25:31-46) and through his day-to-day inclusion and loving encounters with so many whom society found repugnant, Jesus issued a call to his disciples for all time to engage with and care for “the least,” including those who are or have been in prison.
To do so, takes all of us. The foundation of prison ministries is to bring the gospel of God’s unconditional love to men and women who have been traumatized by the violence done to them, as well as by the violence they have perpetrated on others. In God’s eyes they are God’s beloved children and need only to reclaim that identity as the start of a new life.
How does the church help?
Worship services, Bible studies, positive encounters and relationships with visitors, mentoring, identifying resources for next steps, prayer—West End UMC has opportunities for individuals and small groups in each of these areas.
The foundation may be begun, but formerly incarcerated persons face huge barriers to leading the kind of life they hope for. In Tennessee the recidivism rates have run as high as 70%. To help those who are newly freed live a full and free life after incarceration means assisting them over the hurdles. Prison ministry isn’t confined to a facility; rather it goes out the door, walking alongside the one who wants to leave prison behind.
People exiting prison have no job. Often, they not only leave with little to no money, but they also are burdened by tens of thousands of dollars in debt incurred through the criminal justice system fees and accumulated child support costs. Many lack the education, training, work experience, and skills to seek employment. All of them must disclose their identity as a former prisoner, which frequently is the end of the interview and the opportunity.
People exiting prison need a place to call home, as well. Some are fortunate enough to land a space in a halfway house; but when they need to move out and on, they find doors to housing closed to them even if they have a steady job and have turned their life away from their past.
How does the church help?
Two agencies in particular, Church of Another Chance and Project Return, focus their energies on the wrap-around services that are crucial to overcoming such major obstacles to a new life. West End supports them through Missions and Outreach funds and through encouraging volunteers and donations to projects such as Welcome Home Kits and providing furnishings for housing, as well as through prayer.
The needs are great. The opportunities are varied. It takes a community! A community of people who follow Jesus.
For more about ministry and volunteer possibilities related to persons who are now or were formerly incarcerated:
• Talk with Rev. Bill Miller about worship and Bible study opportunities at Riverbend, the men’s prison. Listen to Ed Zinkiewicz’s 13-minute interview with Bill Miller at westendumc.org/WEserve.
• Talk with Sandy Shawhan (firstname.lastname@example.org) about opportunities through Circle of Grace, the United Methodist presence at the Tennessee Prison for Women.
• Talk with Diana Nelson (email@example.com). West End is working on a new Thursday night Bible study and mentorship program in conjunction with Christ United Methodist Church. Diana is West End’s coordinator.
• Talk with Rev. Scott Jamieson about opportunities through Church of Another Chance (churchofanotherchance.org) or with Chelsea Kahle, the volunteer coordinator for Project Return (projectreturninc.org). If you are an employer or have property that needs rehabbing, ask specifically about Project Return’s social enterprises.