Christ Behind Bars

We sat down for dinner in central London. During our table conversation, that’s when he said it. Rev. Griffiths challenged me to my core. Following my experience with the Wesley Pilgrimage, where we traveled across England learning about our heritage as Methodists, I stayed with the Lord Rev. Leslie Griffiths, who is the rector of Methodism’s cathedral, Wesley’s Chapel in London. We were talking about life and ministry during dinner. I asked him if he had any advice to share with a young, fairly new, pastor in the Methodist tradition. What he shared with me has stuck with me ever since.

“If you don’t visit those in jail, then you’re not a Methodist pastor,” he said. Those words convicted me deeply. I had been a pastor for a few years at that point and had never been behind bars to share the love of Christ. I wrote in my journal that night, “I have to visit the jail. It’s what John Wesley and Jesus himself has called me to do.” Our tradition, as Methodists, calls us to minister to all people, even those in jail. Wesley often visited those in prison. He was simply following the call of Christ. Jesus’ words in Matthew 25 remind us to visit those behind bars. When we go, we’ll actually meet Christ who is already present in every jail and prison.

After returning from England, I immediately began planning a Christmas Eve service in our local jail. There would be a few of us from the church who would gather in the jail before our traditional Christmas Eve services to sing, pray, and share God’s love with the men and women who would attend. I also decided to bring the gift of Holy Communion with us. We invited the worshipers, not inmates during that time, to receive God’s gift of Communion. One man in particular shared with me that he had never been offered Holy Communion before. It was a special thing to do, he shared. I was moved by that experience.

The next few years would include frequent visits to the jail for various worship and mentoring opportunities. There were times where only a few of us gathered to worship. We remembered where two or more gathered, there Christ was present and he always was. There were other times, as we prayed with closed eyes, I forgot I was even in jail. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had to visit my brothers and sisters in Christ who have found themselves in challenging situations in life while in jail. I have tried to be a blessing to them, as they have always been a blessing to me. Worship in jail is always real. There would, at times, be confession, bad words, and anger, but it was always real. I know that God desires our authenticity with God and as we talk with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Every person we met had a story. It was a story of hurt and joy. It was a story similar to my own.

In mid-July, nearly two weeks into my new appointment, my congregation was invited to lead worship in the Marion County Jail. It was a moving time of worship once again. I was not surprised when again, I sensed Jesus’ presence behind bars. The men and women of the Indianapolis United Methodist Jail Ministry have been faithfully serving those who are incarcerated for many years. They are faithful to the call of our tradition and the call of Christ. This ministry is comprised of many United Methodist congregations around Indianapolis.

The church has a responsibility to care for all of God’s children. Those who are incarcerated are in need of relationship just like we all are. One way to care is to pray for those incarcerated and their families. You could also visit those incarcerated. Another way is to work for reform. Our nation is in dire need of reform in our criminal justice system. There are many facets to criminal justice reform. Better funded rehabilitation programs where inmates in both local jails and prisons can learn life skills, beat addictions, and get back on their feet are needed. Many inmates are released with little assistance as well. It would be my hope that reform would include better funding for reintegration programs. In May of 2015, three Iowa bishops wrote a letter in favor of sentencing reform. Here is a link to an article: http://umc-gbcs.org/faith-in-action/prison-wrong-way-to-treat-drug-addiction1. In this letter they write, “Incarceration is not an appropriate treatment for curing drug addition.” You can write your legislator and share of your concerns in the area of criminal justice reform.

President Obama recently visited a prison in Oklahoma where he also spoke on prison reform. It is my hope that through this action the conversation surrounding issues of incarceration will surface again. The church can be and should be at the forefront of this conversation. It can be a large and challenging conversation, but there are resources available to help facilitate this conversation. Here are a few: http://umc-gbcs.org/issues/restorative-justice; http://gcorr.org/stories/mass-incarceration-and-race.

The conversation can simply begin by visiting your local jail or prison and building relationships with our brothers and sisters behind bars. It’s amazing where we meet Christ. If you visit your local jail or prison, I guarantee you’ll meet Christ behind bars.

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