I Was in Prison and Ye Came Unto Me
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:…I was in prison, and ye came unto me.” Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, “Lord, when saw we thee … in prison, and came unto thee?” And the King shall answer and say unto them, “Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my [sisters], ye have done it unto me.” Matthew 25:34-40
About a year ago, I wrote a guest post discussing my call to minister to inmates at the county jail. I didn’t have much to add at that point because I had just started. Now that I have some experience under my belt, here’s an update.
When people hear about my volunteer work, I get one of two reactions: People either think I’m some sort of extra super-duper holy person, or they worry for my safety. I don’t really think I’m any holier than any other person with a teaching calling at church. Some people are called to teach Sunday school. I happen to have been called to teach jail inmates. I also don’t worry about my safety at the jail. It’s considered socially unacceptable among the inmates to mess with or harm any clergy person who comes to the jail. I’m probably safer there than I am walking down the street.
Several years ago, I had an opportunity to minister to inmates in a men’s prison. Now I minister in a women’s jail. A common question I get is whether it’s different ministering to women vs men. I’ve found in my experience that it isn’t. People are people, and sin, repentance, and forgiveness are universal human concerns. The biggest difference is between a prison and a jail. When I ministered in a prison setting, the people I worked with were serving life sentences, so their problems generally involved adjusting to the new reality of the rest of their lives knowing they were never returning to society. The concerns we discussed in class were things like how to make their cells a home, how to progress in the gospel when they can’t receive ordinances, how to handle a permanent separation from their families, etc. In a jail setting, about half of the people I work with will be going to prison for a number of years (but not forever), and the other half will be returning to society. The concerns we discuss in class are how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, how to mend broken relationships, how to reintegrate successfully into society, etc.
In both settings, how to access and apply the grace of Jesus Christ is front and center.
When I taught at the prison, we spent one week per month on the church’s 12-step program, two weeks on the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church manual, and one week on scripture study. It was a good, balanced diet of gospel study. The prison I volunteered at had a very small LDS population – 6-12 people regularly came to services and there were maybe a dozen others who were unable to attend but would have if they had been able to. (They were visited one on one by one of my colleagues.) By contrast, the jail has a large LDS population. The county I’m in has about half a dozen jails, and there are enough inmates that the jails are organized into a branch, complete with a branch president. All the LDS teachers report to the branch president, though our records remain in our respective wards, and we attend our wards in addition to the services we lead at the jail. I do one on one visits and teach at one of the jails, though occasionally I get asked to help out by doing one on one visits with inmates at other jails. At the jail I teach at, there are 4-6 LDS classes in English and 2 in Spanish, and each class has attendance ranging from 20-30. I’ve heard that at the other jails, attendance is as high as 50-70.
Because there are so many different classes going on, the classes specialize. I’m responsible for facilitating, with a co-instructor, the church’s 12-step program. Other people teach scripture study classes. Leading the 12-step program was outside my comfort zone when I started because I felt wholly unqualified to teach the class. While I’ve seen loved ones suffer from addiction, I’ve never personally experienced it, so I didn’t really feel that I would have anything useful to add. My co-instructor, when I expressed that concern to her, said that really when it gets down to it, the course is a course on how to apply the Atonement. When I reconsidered it in that light, I felt better about my ability to teach it.
It’s been challenging to balance the demands of work with my ministry at the jail, but it’s been so worth it. True to the promise in Matthew 25, I found God in the jail. When I visit the inmates, I am visiting Jesus. I’m walking on holy ground when I’m teaching my class. Jesus promises “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20. And He is. I’ve seen miracles. I’ve watched people be cleansed of their sins and healed of their broken hearts. I’ve seen prayers answered and hearts softened.
Our society treats people accused of committing crimes as profoundly “other”. There’s “us” and “them”. They even have to wear special clothes advertising their sin – a sort of orange jump-suited version of a scarlet “A”. God, on the other hand, just sees beloved children. We’re no better than they are. “[A]ll have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:23. Yes, the people I teach are sinners. But so are you. And so am I. And God loves us anyway and shows us how to be cleansed and healed by the marvelous grace of Jesus Christ.
I don’t know why God gave me this call, and I don’t know how long God will need me to continue in it, but I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to bring His love to people who so desperately need it and to feel that love myself in the process.
Image Credit: By Officer Bimblebury – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54949254