Ministry behind bars: Detention centers and prisons

August 21st, 2018

Taking our freedom for granted

When Judge Clay Jenkins saw the news that thousands of migrant children were being separated from their families at the U.S./Mexican border, he wanted to do something. Working with the Reverend Elizabeth Moseley, a deacon at his home church, Highland Park United Methodist Church, Jenkins put together an interfaith team to provide faith-based services for children being held at a detention camp near El Paso, Texas. On July 8, they made the first of their now weekly trips from Dallas to lead worship with about 400 teenagers housed at the Tornillo camp.

As the Reverend Owen Ross, director of church development for the North Texas Conference, told United Methodist Insight, it was awkward at first. “How do you lead worship for 360 Latino boys who don’t know you?” Eventually the team connected with the youth, who asked for prayers for the welfare of their family as well as for their own release from detention.

The Reverend Martha Valencia, lead pastor at Elmwood-El Buen Samaritano United Methodist Church in Oak Cliff, Texas, has accompanied the group twice. “The first time I did not know what to expect,” she said. “The second time . . . made me realize that I could go back home and back in and out of the facility unlike the children. Though I remembered the travel from the week before, experiencing it a second time reminded me how often we take our freedom for granted.”

Other detention centers

Immigration detention centers aren’t the only places where churches are ministering to people behind bars. From the early Methodists in the Holy Club to the support of chaplaincy ministries, United Methodists and other Christians have a long history of reaching out to those who are incarcerated.

In Virginia, Methodists join with Baptists and other faith partners to support GraceInside, a statewide organization working to provide full-time chaplains at all of the commonwealth’s prison facilities. “For over 80 years, the churches gave chaplaincy as a gift to the state,” said the Reverend Lynn Litchfield, director of development for GraceInside, because the state wouldn’t fund it. A change early in the millennium allowed for the profits from commissary sales to be used for funding chaplains, and now the state provides a little over half of GraceInside’s budget.

Litchfield noted that prison chaplaincy is a critical ministry because over 90 percent of those serving time will eventually be released into the general population. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, over 13,000 prisoners are released from prisons by the Virginia Department of Corrections each year. Litchfield quoted one prisoner who told her, “We’re going to get out eventually, and don’t you want somebody who knows Jesus mowing your lawn?”

Who should do prison ministry?

Before her current position, Litchfield served as the first and only chaplain of the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. It was here that she saw firsthand what was happening in prisons: the increase in the number of incarcerated persons following Virginia’s abolition of parole in 1995; the growing number of people who wound up in prison when mental health resources dried up in their communities; the huge growth in incarceration rates for women across the country; and the thousands of women serving long terms for nonviolent offenses at a tremendous cost to themselves, their families, and the state. According to the Justice Policy Institute, Virginia currently spends around $1.5 billion a year to incarcerate people.

Litchfield works to help others understand the realities of life as an inmate through regular speaking engagements at churches and other locations. At these events, she wears the ubiquitous orange jumpsuit of prison life and takes on the dramatic persona of Hope, a composite character based around a number of women she has known. Through these dramatic portrayals, Litchfield hopes to raise awareness and funds for chaplains, whom she describes as “really poorly paid.”

Due to the decline in denominational support, chaplain ministries, like most ministries, are scrambling for resources. Church giving has been on a steady decline since the 1980s. Five years ago, when Litchfield took her current job, she was handed a list of just 200 supporters. She’s grown the active donor list to 894, but she knows there’s much more work to do.

“I often hear Christians say, ‘Why isn’t somebody else paying for this?’ and I respond, ‘Well, who should pay for it?’ State funding is limited and might inhibit chaplains from addressing areas that need reform. Inmate families usually can’t afford to give. Lots of people take care of other shiny causes like clean water. Christians are specifically asked to care for prisoners, and that’s a cause many others won’t take on,” said Litchfield.

“A Borderless God”

Owen Ross said he was struck by the power of the singing at Tornillo. When the worship team began a song called “Our God Is Almighty,” the boys sang out and clapped. “They sang with such hope that an Almighty God can deliver them from their current circumstances,” Ross told UM Insight.

Christians have often seen prisoners and those longing for freedom as a powerful symbol of how humanity longs for God. In Philemon 1, the apostle Paul, who experienced long periods of imprisonment, called himself a “prisoner for the cause of Christ Jesus,” using his imprisonment as a way to witness to a greater liberating power.

Speaking to the Texas Methodist Foundation, which helped support the North Texas mission, Ross said, “Everyone should be able to worship God, and everyone needs hope.” Ross himself found hope in the worship and prayers they shared with the boys in Tornillo that day. “There is a kingdom of God factor that connects us all; when we worship together, we are powerfully reminded of a borderless God.”

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