“‘Lord, . . . when was it that we saw you . . . in prison and visited you?’ . . . ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” Matthew 25:39-40
Columbia students are incarnating the love of God through their work in Georgia’s prisons. Lucy Webb ’08, along with nine other students in the course titled “The Cross and the State: Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Dimensions of Prison Ministry,” enfleshed that love by visiting regularly with men incarcerated at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, GA, and by leading worship at the Metro State Prison, which is for women and is located in Atlanta. Another 2008 graduate, Catherine Neelly, spent 15 hours a week in an internship at the women’s prison. Her work there included counseling, leading worship, and teaching.
Hope for the Prisoner—and All the Rest of Us
by Lucy Waechter Webb ’08
Prison. Some people call it a mission field, others a warehouse, and perhaps most would simply call it a scary place with lots of razor wire. My experience at Metro State Prison and the Georgia Diagnostic & Classification Prison taught me that prison is all of these things. It is also one of the best places to learn about pastoral care. In these two prisons I encountered the importance of our theology of Imago Dei. It’s hard enough to walk into an imposing facility knowing you are about to speak with an individual who has been convicted of a crime deemed horrible enough that the person should be locked away. It becomes even harder when you learn about the crime, and have a tearful human being in front of you, who despite the crime, needs care and the assurance of God’s love. It is in those moments that God’s image becomes clear in the faces of those we call “offenders,” and our own offenses become clear as we stare into the mirror of their eyes. In these moments, some of the most profound I have experienced in pastoral care, justice has been redefined.
With 55,000 people in Georgia’s prisons, 18,000 being released each year and 20,000 going in, we’re going in the wrong direction. The entire country is suffering from overcrowded prisons as one out of every 100 people in the United States is being housed in a correctional facility. Much of the problem is the high recidivism rate. Sixty-five percent of offenders will return to prison, and often it is because their needs are not met while they are in prison. Then they return to old environments that contributed to their ending up in prison in the first place.
All of this makes prisons a place abundant with opportunities for doing pastoral care. Having someone visit with prisoners when families can’t spend the money on gas or don’t care to know them anymore can make a difference in how an individual survives and chooses to spend prison time. Furthermore, churches that are actively seeking and welcoming people who are re-entering society can make a difference in whether or not they re-offend.
Rachel, a young woman recently released from prison, spoke at a conference on prison ministry. Holding the hand of her mentor, she said through her tears, “Everybody just needs that one person who will sit with them and listen and encourage them to keep going.” It’s exhausting and, yes, sometimes scary, but it is the call we are given in Matthew 25. And in these relationships, though they raise many questions, we can begin to understand God’s love and justice in an incredible, new way.
Randy Loney offers a simple but profound prayer for this ministry in his inscription on my copy of his book A Dream of the Tattered Man: “With hope for the prisoner…and all of us.”
Lucy Webb is serving as mentor coordinator in the Prison Re-entry Initiative for Span, Inc., in Boston, MA.
by Catherine Neelly ’08
On some level I had stopped believing that God was doing new things, stopped believing that God was actively at work in our world. Then I found myself at the Metro State Women’s Prison. The women at the prison taught me to pray again. Prayers at Metro have to matter. When I prayed at Metro, I could not pray vague prayers indicating that I believed God had acted before and with no comment on the future. Praying with inmates forced me to pray to a God who is still acting in our world. When I prayed with the women at the prison, I knew that I had to believe what I was praying. And knowing that made me believe in God even more. It wasn’t that my prayers before were bad or faithless, just that the depth of my relationship with God grew. I was consumed by the Holy Spirit in a way I had never felt before, and I am still reeling from it.
One day I met with a woman who was preparing to leave the prison after being there for 13 years. Her family cut off all ties with her after she was incarcerated. She did not know where she would go when released. She gave up her children for adoption when she entered the prison system and was still tormented by this loss. I asked her what she wanted me to pray about. She said strength. She needed strength to make it every hour in prison and strength for what awaited her outside the prison. In groups she feigned confidence, but one on one she looked tired and scared, and she cried when she talked about her children. When I prayed I started to ask God to be with her, in the kind of vague and innocuous prayer I might pray about anything. Then I thought, ‘No, God can do this. God can give her strength. I believe this. She believes this. We need to call on God for this.’ And so I pleaded with God to make God’s Spirit known as this woman struggled to make it through another day, another hour at Metro.
Catherine Neelly is a resident pastor at Central Presbyterian Church, Atlanta, GA. The congregation’s pastoral resident program is supported by a grant from the Lilly Endowment. Through the two-year residency, Central seeks to equip newly-ordained ministers to serve faithfully and creatively in pastoral ministry in an urban context.