This personal Journal covers only a few days of ministry with men in a state prison in New England but it gives insight into the labor of love that prison ministry is and the rewards it offers. Some names and identifying characteristics were changed out of respect for the people who are incarcerated. Monday, April 22, 2012 Fr. Stephen M. came in and presided over Paschal Agape Vespers, in which we read the gospel in Spanish, Greek, Slavonic and Latin, and sang Christ is Risen, The Angel Cried and many other hits. The men were clearly moved by the Orthodox Faith and saw the passion for our faith. After Vespers, we had some time for discussion and questions.
Photo: Press Photos/T.J. Hamilton, www.mlive.com
Wednesday, May 23, 2012 On Sunday, I had the opportunity to preach on Prison Ministry at St. Mary’s and then share the same thoughts with the men in prison on Monday night. Here are those thoughts:
Today, you may have noticed by the Epistle that today is Prison Ministry Awareness Sunday in which we read the Epistle of Paul and Silas in prison. So I’d like to jump right into the Epistle today, and ask, how did St. Paul land in prison? It wasn’t the first or last time it happened. In this case, St. Paul has recently arrived in Philippi, in the northeast of Greece otherwise known as Macedonia, the birthplace of Alexander the Great, and he has recently converted Lydia, the woman who sold purple cloth, the color of Emperors. They were staying in her home, and were going to “a place of prayer” one morning, a synagogue perhaps, and they are followed by a young slave girl who announces “these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation”. Well, that’s fine. Perhaps it’s nice to have a trumpet announcing your presence, but over the next few days, she becomes a bit of a nuisance and she just won’t quit, until St. Paul becomes so annoyed that he commands the spirit to come out of her in the name of Jesus Christ. She was cramping his style, and he couldn’t preach with all of her annoying proclamations. Now, Paul may well have known that this little girl earned a lot of money for her owners by fortune telling, and when she lost her power, they lost their income. It doesn’t seem so difficult to whip up a mob in Philippi, so right away Paul and Silas find themselves in prison. We heard how Paul and Silas were beaten and placed in an inner cell, but they don’t seem very worried. They were together and they could comfort each other. Then we see them at midnight praying together, singing songs and hymns, when there is an earthquake which throws open all the doors, enabling everyone to escape. The officer or jailer on duty assumes everyone is gone when he sees all the prison doors open, and he is about to fall on his sword, when St. Paul calls out, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here”. So their jailer falls before them and asks them “what must I do to be saved?” And St. Paul replies, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household. It’s early in the morning now, when the jailer cares for them and St. Paul baptizes the officer and his family. He sets a meal before Silas and Paul, and everyone is filled with joy.
It’s a pretty rosy picture. Certainly Paul and Silas were scourged and beaten, but they spent less than a night in prison. Overall, it feels more like an adventure with a great ending. As many of you know, every Monday, Father Antony and I go visit the men in the State Prison. And although I haven’t been there during an earthquake I have seen “tiny” miracles. If your eyes are open, you will see them. But first I feel the need to contrast the reality of prison with this Epistle reading. The focus in Acts is on the conversion of the gentiles, and this story is a prime example of the power of God moving the heart of an officer who is so grateful that his prisoners have not escaped. (The men we visit in prison, of course, were able to offer ample insights as to why St. Paul chose not to escape when offered the opportunity.) And that’s good, but the reality of prison is seeing men ground down by time. Time is the enemy. Every day they count the days to their release. Often that takes years or decades or never. Many of these men are old.
Over the years, St. Mary’s Church has been very supportive of Prison Ministry. One great recent example comes from Kate J., who asked me to inquire among the men about the scriptures that moved them. The plan is for the Sunday school to create art with these scriptures and bring the art back in as gifts. The process of sharing scriptures with these guys is enlightening. They really know it. Allow me to share with you a couple of examples of their chosen scriptures and reflections, and if you can, try to put yourself in their place:
Al: Psalm 139 – “Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways.”
Tom: Ecclesiastes 3:1-15 “For everything there is a season. There is a time for everything under heaven…”
Will: Jeremiah 29:11 “I know the plans I have for you, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Romans 8:28 “In all things, God works for the good of those who love him… We have been called according to his good purpose.” Everything that happens, works for the good. We are transportation bringing the Word to each other.
John: Matthew 6:14-15: “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you
George: 1 Corinthians 13: “These three remain: faith, hope and love, but the greatest of these is love. Pedro (Pedro is a Spanish speaking inmate, so his testimony had to be translated): Romans 6:18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.
Manuel: Job 19:21-27 “Oh, that my words were inscribed with an iron tool on lead, or engraved in rock forever! I know that my redeemer lives. In the end he will stand upon the earth. In my flesh, I will see God. I myself will see him with my own eyes.”
So that’s my journal. I would like to finish by sharing the power of singing together. Next time you are gathered and sing together think about what it’s like to be in prison, and be connected in song. It is powerful. Pray for our Brothers and Sisters in Prison.