Each Monday evening after work, I meet up with my fellow volunteers at a local Culver’s for dinner and discussion. Then we drive to the only women’s prison in Minnesota. We go through security and enter a classroom. We retrieve our bibles and rotate who teaches each week. I have been a part of this group of volunteers for 2.5 years.
We always start with a brief introduction to the Orthodox Faith. Since many people are unfamiliar with Orthodoxy, prison ministry allows us to expose prisoners to our ancient faith for the first time. We lead a general bible study – this can include music, video, hand-outs, art, poetry, games, and icons. Each volunteer has a slightly different teaching style and emphasis. I joined this ministry a few months after I was chrismated into the Orthodox faith. Through my fellow volunteers, prisoners, and preparation for leading studies, I’ve been able to deepen my new faith and understanding of Christianity. It is a thing of beauty to share our faith with women starving for truth and goodness.
Prison ministry is difficult to contain in words. It is an experience. Here are some revelations I’ve discovered through my ministry:
- Often women are grateful, very grateful, to be in prison. They note, “Prison is the best thing that’s happened to me because I would be dead if I didn’t have this time out to focus on myself and change.”
- Most women are in prison for substance use/misuse charges. There are many treatment programs in prison. Most of these programs (AA, NA, etc.) have a strong religious focus in them. This allows a synergy between growing in faith and learning to live substance free for the women who participate in both religious programs and treatment programs.
- The women are filled with shame especially around being separated from their children. There is a real struggle to accept God’s forgiveness for the hurt they have caused their children. Mother’s Day and holidays are always really hard days for the ladies in prison.
- There is a real hunger for truth in the ladies. Finding God and opening up to His love and truth provides peace and meaning to their lives. The ladies always knew that there was “something more to life” than how they previously lived.
- They love to hear definitive, black and white distinctions, and become animated when talking about Satan and evil forces, likely because they’ve experienced so many of these forces in their lives.
- Women often talk about ‘county’ (county jails) where they are held until sentencing. After sentencing, they are sent to prison. County jails can vary tremendously. Many have little programming but prisoners are always provided a bible. Often it is during this time when the women turn to God and start to read the bible, typically starting with the book of psalms. There is quite a lot of programming at our prison. When we are at the prison Monday, we enter with Catholics, AA, yoga, university writing classes, and occasionally Wicca. They are most grateful for our time and efforts and pray for us. It’s a powerful thing to be prayed for by these women who are actively being transformed by the Holy Spirit. As with all volunteering, you to reap more than you sow.
- One of the hardest things about prison is living in community. The women are told, “You enter prison alone and you leave alone.” As someone on the outside, that sounds horrible, but it seems to reinforce an idea that prison is a time to reform yourself. When in prison, the ladies are not able to choose their roommate. Some roommate pairings are great, some are awful – oil and water situations. This tends to be quite stressful for the women and they really feel the loss of control over their lives when they have to switch houses or roommates.
- Don’t ask me about Orange is the New Black type of drama. I hate when people ask me for sordid stories of prison life. I don’t watch this show, but have an idea of what it depicts. I don’t know and do not want to know why the women who attend our bible studies are in prison. It doesn’t matter other than my own interest. As volunteers, we focus on the present and future. That is what matters: change, reform, repentance.
- One lady shared that when she takes her morning shower she thinks of it like a baptism and it gives her strength and renewal for the day. What a lovely way to incorporate God into her daily routine!
- We also hold a short vespers service complete with choir and deacon quarterly at prison. This is a real treat for the women. Most have never been to a liturgical religious service. The sensual nature of the Orthodox worship really appeals to and often moves the women to tears. Hearing the psalms sung/chanted, seeing the beautiful vestments, smelling the incense which clings to the icons and vestments transforms a small prison chapel into a heavenly place. The icons are a gateway to understanding our faith for the women. Many do not know the bible or theology, but they can easily comprehend a sorrowful Christ in prison.
In summary, prison ministry is place where lives are transformed. It is powerful, but requires responsibility. The ladies we encounter have often been victimized and are in need of love and understanding. We cannot fully understand what they have experienced. When I think that I have always had a place to call home, food to eat, people who love me, I feel rich and spoiled. It reminds me to be continuously grateful for what I have been given, because I certainly haven’t earned my cosseted life. I could so easily be one of the prisoners I visit on Monday. Prison ministry has taught me to treat others with greater charity and love. May your lives also be transformed by serving others!
Anna Dapper attends St. Mary’s OCA in the Twin Cities