What I Learned in Prison
Last weekend, I had an opportunity to attend a Embracing Diversity: Building Relationships, Deep & Wide conference in Columbus, Ohio. This conference was sponsored by the General Board of Global Ministries and the United Methodist Church for All People. It was incredibly worthwhile! One of the workshops I attended was “All in Community: Ministry With The Incarcerated”. This workshop was led by Rev. Dr. Richard Boone, a Church and Community Worker missionary with the General Board of Global Ministries. Dr. Boone is serving as the Horizon Prison Initiative coordinator at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Columbus, Ohio. We visited the prison to explore how inmates can be cultural bridges/brokers for congregations.
Chillicothe Correctional Institution has varying levels of security and includes 128 men on Death Row. The Horizon Prison Ministry expanded its program into this institution in 2010 (it was already in a couple of other prisons in Ohio), and they currently have 72 offenders in the program. The men selected to participate come together as a community, in a living and learning environment, where they are required to pursue an aggressive curriculum of educational, spiritual, and psychological programs with immediate life applications.
We heard testimonies from several men who shared how this ministry has helped them become servant leaders and prepare for re-entry back into the prison population and/or re-entry into the community for those who will be released. The men described ‘Franks’ and ‘Joes’, two types of experiences inmates face during their time in prison. Some guys take their time in prison as an opportunity to work on issues they feel they have, either by attending programs, or reading self-help books, or going to school. Other guys spend their time wasting time. The ‘Franks’ of the world leave prison with the same attitudes, for good or for bad, which they came in with. The ‘Joes’ of the world have chosen to take the time to work on their problems. We were reminded that the road to successful re-entry is difficult for both the ‘Franks’ and the ‘Joes’.
One of the men shared how he had grown up where all he knew was crime. All of his male relatives were criminals and he began stealing cars when he was 13 and breaking into homes when he was 15. He looked kind of scary with tattoos, all over his neck and even some on his face. He had been in and out of prison since he was 18 years old. He said that he actually learned more about how to be a better criminal as other inmates mentored him each time he was incarcerated.
A few of the inmates had taken the lives of others and were in prison for life and another shared that he was a sex addict and had sexually abused boys just as he had been sexually abused between the ages of 7-9 years old. He struggled to share his story through his shame and tears.
I was reminded that God loves ALL people, even these men who had made very serious mistakes in their lives. We were told that trauma that is not transformed is transferred.
This ministry is helping people to transform their lives, with God’s help.
Those who leave prison without transformation are likely to go back to their old habits, because it’s all they know. It’s difficult to get a job and for many, gangs serve as their only friends and family.
Horizon Prison Ministry helps them to make the days inside count. They are encouraged to write letters to their family members and many of these men are improving their relationships with their mothers, wives, and children. The men learn about how to deal with conflict, they face what brought them to prison, and they form authentic relationships with one another as they explore their faith.
The Horizon goals are to: become a man of faith, to learn to live in a functioning family, to face the reality of what brought them to prison, and to contribute to the community. We should seek ways to advocate for ministries such as this in our prisons and also seek ways to help with re-entry. As we encounter those with unsavory pasts who have allowed God to transform their lives we should embrace them in our churches and allow them to help us know how to reach others. We should also seek opportunities to become an incarnational presence to young people in at-risk communities to help them learn other options for how to behave and belong. Nobody ever said that following Jesus would be easy.
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