An Amazing True Story
When Christy* was just 4 years old, she experienced her father’s uncontrolled temper in the form of physical abuse. By the time she was a young teenager, her father was imprisoned for life. She dropped out of school in seventh grade in order to go to work to help support her family. When Christy was 15 years old, however, her young work life was cut short when her mother was killed by a drunk driver. Christy became a ward of the state, and eventually ran away from foster care. The next year, her younger brother was murdered. Christy couldn’t reconcile in her heart how her life had become such a nightmare.
By the time she was 23, Christy was married with two young children. She was hoping that the fragmented pieces of her broken world would finally make some sense, but her past continued to haunt her. How could her father have been so cruel to her and her five siblings? Why didn’t he care enough about his children to ensure their well being? Christy realized she was headed for divorce and more brokenness unless she could reconcile her past in answer to these important questions.
By this time, Christy’s father had been in prison for over ten years. Christy decided it was time to try to make peace with her past by visiting her father in prison and confronting him. Never contemplating forgiveness, she simply hoped to resolve the anger and horror she continued to feel from her childhood. She would tell her father how badly he had hurt his children and that the scars he had left would last a lifetime. She would let him know that he was responsible for the hell their lives had become. Hopefully, this would enable her to find peace by severing ties with her horrendous past and moving into a new future.
Christy wasn’t ready for the interaction that took place with her father the day she entered the visiting room of the state prison where he was incarcerated. She had prepared for a battle with her abuser, but instead found a man who had already begun to “surrender.” It was evident that something had happened to her father during his incarceration; he had become gentle, remorseful, and truly repentant. He apologized for his sins and past acts of abuse. The peace that she had longed for began to appear, but not in a way she had ever imagined. Through the ministry of an Orthodox priest, Christy’s father had become a Christian during his incarceration. God had enabled Christy’s father to begin to repent of his many past sins, and now, God was reaching out to heal Christy as well through the very man who had abused and broken her. God broke through the hardness and was in the process of restoring a heart of flesh!
That night, Christy knelt at her bedside feeling confused and hopeful. Thanking Jesus Christ with tears of joy and pain, she experienced God’s love, enormous and infinite, and yet so close that she felt it surrounding her like a warm cloak. As she rested in the arms of her Heavenly Father, Christy opened her heart to Him in a way she had never been able to do before. Concerning her earthly father, Christy remained guarded. If this was a true reconciliation, it had to pass the test of time.
Thirteen more years have now passed. Christy lives with her three children. She is a seventh grade science teacher and a devout Christian. She began to understand forgiveness the day she visited her father in prison and saw how God had touched his life. Now, forgiveness and reconciliation continues to deepen in Christy as she takes steps each day to receive more of the healing embrace of our Lord and experience a deeper reconciliation with her past, her father, her siblings, and most importantly – her God! Now, as Christy experiences God’s total forgiveness of her own sins and is given the freedom to love even the person who caused her the most pain, the reality of God’s transforming grace becomes more and more evident to her. Through the love of God at work behind prison walls, Christy and her father have been given the gift of forgiveness and reconciliation that last a lifetime!
*Name changed to protect identity.
The Birth of a Prison Ministry
This wonderful letter is from a volunteer who just started an Orthodox study in a prison. As you will see, the materials that OCPM provides are a great blessing to both the volunteers and to those who live in these places. Thank you for your help in making all of this possible. This letter is really the fruit of your love and work with OCPM.
We had 10 men attend tonight. The OCPM catechism materials and OSB were distributed and reviewed. One of the men said “Is this Bible for us? No one has ever given me a Bible. I am using a borrowed one for tonight. This is my first Bible.”
Upon receiving the catechism books several asked “We can have these?” I explained that the OCPM developed the books and provided them from voluntary donations offered by Orthodox Churches and Christians from across the country. Each man in the room expressed their appreciation for the catechism books and Bible. They were overwhelmed.
We read the first 2 pages of the text book and answered the first questions in the work book together so they could get the concept. They are excited to get started. They set a goal for the week to read the text book and answer the questions from Lesson 1 in the work book. Afterward they plan to complete two lessons per week, finishing this first catechism “module” in 8 weeks. We will review the lessons in our weekly meetings.
The icon of the Ladder of Divine Ascent was a big hit. The men immediately related to the icon and its message. They said they could use the icon for encouragement when things get off center and they need to refocus on their journey to know God.
We discussed prayer and the importance of prayer in our Christian journey. The resident leader has asked about a structure for their “in house” bible study meetings.
We provided them with a basic structure that would carefully guide them utilizing the Orthodox Christian Lectionary, Catechism, Prayers, discussion, and silence before God.
The lesson tonight was modeled on your idea of the quotes from the Fathers. They really enjoyed them and we had some very open discussion. One man was turned down for sentence reduction this week and the idea of falling and getting up, and falling and getting up, really struck him and encouraged him. Their openness and honesty is striking.
These men are intelligent and well read. There is nothing slow about them. They want to know everything and devour every word. By the way: that is really good stuff in the OCPM catechism. We should use this in our Church. (I am doing the work with them so I can keep up.)
After the meeting, two asked if Orthodox used the rosary. A very brief answer about the prayer rope and how our approach was different but still similar (no details) led them to ask if we could discuss that in the future and if getting a rosary or prayer rope was possible. This is something for me to work on.
Thank you for allowing this debrief and reflection. It really helps. If there is anything amiss, let me know so we can stay on path and on task.
Please take time to browse our website to learn more about OCPM.
A Short Journal of an Orthodox Christian Prison Worker
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.
Now don’t misunderstand me. Many of these guys need to be in there. This is the place where they will face themselves and have an opportunity to repent and be saved. And it is a privilege to see the power of God at work in their lives. But the daily grind is difficult. They are faced with suicide and other perversities. So church and our visits can be a haven from the craziness. And those who come to church are labeled sissies. It’s hard I know. But, if they make it in, the scene is not unlike the reading today. We also pray and sing hymns together, and it’s powerful. I’ve heard it said, look these guys are criminals who need to do their time. They have been judged guilty of a crime, so why should we coddle them with our programs? I do not disagree that prison is the place they have to do their work, and an opportunity for their salvation, but it’s hard to change in a vacuum when faced with evil, accusations, and constant negativity all around. Church in prison is a chance for real change and a new path. I have to believe in the possibility of change, and that we can play a part in their healing.