Does your Church have a Prison Ministry?

Posted by on Jun 22, 2012 in Uncategorized | 5 comments

Does your Church have a Prison Ministry?

Read this article,“Ex-Offenders Wait for Churches’ Welcome”  by a Baptist Chaplain, from Divinity Magazine and let us know what you think.


By Chanequa Walker-Barnes D’07
Article first appeared in Winter 2007 Volume 6 Number 2 of Divinity Magazine


For 10 weeks last summer, I drove the 30 miles from my Durham home to Raleigh and joined dozens of state employees in the same morning ritual: locking our valuables — purses, wallets, and cell phones — in our car trunks or glove compartments.

Taking only our car keys and identification, we walked through the gatehouse of the North Carolina Correctional Institute for Women (NCCIW). There, for the next nine hours, we were sealed off from the rest of the world with 1,240 women convicted of offenses ranging from financial fraud to first-degree murder.

Photo by Tony Pearce
Chaplain Aghogah returns from one of the weekly worship services at the Chapel of the Nameless Woman.


NCCIW is the state’s major correctional facility for women. It is also the site of women’s death row. In addition to the general inmate population, it supports the state’s six other female prisons. Dozens of inmates arrive daily for the medical and mental health units, educational services, and vocational programs. The prison’s diagnostic unit is the point of entry for all women sentenced as felons. There, all newly-sentenced offenders undergo substance abuse screening and educational/health evaluations to determine their prison assignments.

Mirroring most prison systems in the nation, North Carolina’s female offenders have higher rates of psychiatric disorders and substance abuse than do male offenders. Moreover, women’s roles as mothers lend an additional layer of complexity to life at NCCIW. Last year, 220 women entered the prison pregnant and 92 of them gave birth there. A staff of social workers helps these and other women navigate custody issues and provides parenting education classes.

Over the course of the summer, I learned that the role of prison chaplain is unique. Prisons exist for the purpose of punishment. Chaplains emphasize the possibility of redemption, stressing pastoral care and spiritual formation where others focus upon security and safety.

Prison chaplains are called to be visionaries, discerning and anticipating the spiritual needs of their congregants, and developing programs to meet those needs. At NCCIW, these programs include weekly worship services, Catholic mass, Bible studies (seven for the general population and three for death row inmates), and Islamic worship services.

As I prepared my first sermon for the inmates, the pressure to deliver relevant, meaningful preaching was particularly salient. A congregation behind bars demands a life-giving Word.

During my first few weeks, I struggled with the appropriate way to say goodbye at the end of each day to those whom I had come to know and care about. “Have a good evening” was no longer just a farewell; it was a benediction.

Pastoral care also took on a qualitatively different aspect. Within prison walls, time grinds to a halt. Yet life continues at its normal pace for the loved ones of inmates on the outside. In addition to sitting with an inmate grieving the death of her grandmother, I had to explain that permission to attend the funeral had been denied.

Photo by Tony Pearce
Inside the Chapel of the Nameless Woman.

And while walking in the confidence of Christ, I worked against the backdrop of fear that is a constant when working with those convicted of transgressing society’s laws. Each day I entered the prison gatehouse expecting a safe environment, but fully knowing that safety could never be taken for granted.

Most prisoners spend their days working — as janitors in the complex, at the adjoining license tag and duplicating plant, or in the dental lab, laundry or dining hall. They live in single-story, concrete-block dorms arranged in quads — four large rooms with 30 bunks, open showers and toilets, and a small recreation space with a few tables and a television.

There is no air conditioning in these quarters, and during the summer it’s often hotter inside than out in the sun in the prison yard, the only other space where prisoners can spend their leisure time. There is little comfort and absolutely no privacy.

In the midst of this, prisoners must cope with mental illness, alcohol and drug addiction, health problems, loss of friends and family, and feelings of guilt, isolation and abandonment.

The shortage of funding for rehabilitation reflects society’s emphasis upon punishment and the control of offenders. Mental health services are often available for only the most severe cases. And even a judge’s order does not guarantee access to one of the prison’s drug treatment programs.

Even churches seem to have a “not wanted” policy toward ex-offenders. With a prison in nearly every North Carolina county, almost every church has a correctional institution in its backyard. Yet often divinity students serving field education placements find no opportunity for prison ministry.

Despite Christ’s command to his disciples to visit the imprisoned, few churches have ministries that reach out to these men and women. Fewer still have support services for ex-offenders as they transition back to society.

Chaplain Gloria Aghogah explains, “Everyone wants to come to the prison to preach salvation to these women. But afterwards, they’re saying, ‘We don’t know if we want you in our church.’”

The N.C. Department of Corrections offers many opportunities for ministry. For more information, contact the chaplain of the local correctional institution. To find out how to become involved in transition efforts, contact Roshanna Parker, director of the DOC Office of Transition Services, at 919-716-3080.

This article does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry or the Orthodox Church. It is one Chaplain’s expression of her experience with people in conflict with the law and the American Correctional System.*


Does your church have a Prison Ministry?

If Yes, please tell us a little about your parish prison ministry.

If No, is your parish interested in ministering to people who are in jail/prison?

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  2. Yes, our church has a prison ministry. And we receive God’s blessings through it, at least as much as we share God’s love with those behind the walls.
    We started about 5 years ago at the beginning of Great Lent, when Father read the Last Judgment, and some of us heard “…I was in prison, but YOU did not visit me.” It took some searching to figure out how to actually get started. But God steered us to an interdenominational program called Kairos – the Greek word for “the right time.” Our first two volunteers found ready support from our priest and our congregation. Some gave cash (green agape), others baked cookies or helped in the kitchen preparing meals for the weekend, and even little children made colorful placemats for the tables. But most importantly, our church family prayed for us – 24/7 during the entire inside weekend.
    Once we served our first weekend, we were hooked. Our men return to the prison for prayer and sharing at least twice a month. As soon as one weekend is finished, we begin preparing for the next. And it isn’t just the inside team members whose lives are touched. All our members look forward to the next weekend or retreat when they can help bring God’s love to those behind the razor wire. One little girl often asks our team “How are the jail guys? Are you still visiting them?”
    The ministry is growing. By November, 2011, three men from our church served inside, and in 2012 there will be five men. Four of them are ministering in a high security prison, and the fifth is ministering to men on Death Row. We are praying that God will use us to organize an Orthodox church inside the prison system, and to develop ministries to those who are returning to the community.
    People often ask, “Does a prison ministry really change lives?” Our church would answer, “Absolutely!” We have seen amazing changes in the lives of men inside, and we find that our own lives are changed as well.
    So next time you listen to Matthew 25, or Hebrews 12:3, and wonder if God is trying to tell you something, He probably is.

  3. I have been visiting prisons for 14 years. I have baptized 4 men, and currently see about 20. I go to 2 prisons, twice each a month, in Texas. This year, we have received donations, so the gasoline and postage is not coming out of my own pocket, which is a big help. I am familiar with the state prison system, and have only been to one federal facility, one time. A small writeup about our humble ministry is at http;//

    I will try to see or write to anybody in Texas who is Orthodox or an inquirer. My schedule is full for visiting, since I drive about 350 miles once each week, but I will do what I can. I could make visits that are in far away places if I am given financial help (so I can fly)

    My biggest problem right now is getting somebody who can sing the liturgy, and is reliable. I have had people say they would, but nothing has come of it so far. 99% of prison ministry is like life – it is in the “showing up”.

    Priest Seraphim Holland Cell:972 658-5433 Home:972 529-2754
    *** 708 S Chestnut, MCKINNEY, TEXAS 75070 ***

  4. The gentleman in his remarks raises a good question. What is the purpose of incarceration in the American Justice System?

    Do we incarcerate dangerous people to keep the public safe?
    Do we incarcerate people with social/psychological illnesses to facilitate rehabilitation?
    Do we incarcerate “errant’s” to punish them or correct them?
    Or are there other reasons?

  5. You said here that prisons exist to “punish”. This didn’t use to be the case in this country, and strictly speaking, we still give lip service to the idea that our prisons are for rehabilitation, not punishment. But, the more one pays attention to the prison system, the more clear it becomes that they are now used by our society to punish even if we pretend this is not the case.

    This is one of the main motivations I have for hoping to become more involved in prison ministry. If the State is going to abandon the notion of rehabilitation, and in some cases undermine it because of how inmates are treated by staff and by one another while behind bars.

    Does this tension make it easier, or more difficult, in the work you have already engaged, to figure out the appropriate way to be a healing presence within a prison?

    I am a member of St. George Antiochian parish in Houston Texas and we are in the process of establishing a prison ministry, but as far as I know we are not yet in any way active. I’m hoping that changes, soon.

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