Setting Captives Free

"Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell" by publik15
“Bronson Blessington: Testimony from my prison cell” by publik15

Doug Walker works for the General Board of Church and Society establishing Healing Communities, a framework for ministry to persons returning from or at risk of incarceration, their families, and the larger community.  He works 15 hours a week on behalf of the wider church trying to bridge the gap between local church life and the lives of its families who are bearing the weight of incarceration.

Lee Schott, pastor of Women at the Well United Methodist Church inside the Mitchelville Women’s Prison, wonders how the Iowa Annual Conference can continue to connect with women once they leave the prison and return to life outside its walls.

Dave Hobbs and the Iowa United Methodist Camps have been developing a specialized camp ministry for the children of people who are or have been incarcerated in Iowa. It is called Camp Hope, and Dave and the camp directors are looking to expand this ministry.

At one level, it seems like we shouldn’t need institutional support or significant technical education to be in vital ministry with people entangled with the criminal justice system (and it is an entanglement; guards, administrators, and others on the law-abiding side of the system are as deeply in need of specialized ministry as those they are employed to keep).  Yet, clearly we in the local church are not entangled enough.

As great as Doug, Lee and Dave’s programs and ministry areas are, they cannot be the sole presence of the United Methodist Church when it comes to our call to be in ministry with those Jesus has given us.  Despite the fact that practically every Iowa town has at least one United Methodist Church, not every town has a flourishing jail visitation ministry. Not every person who needs a ride to visit their loved one in jail can get one. Not every person leaving incarceration has a congregation waiting to receive them. Not every prison guard has a group with which to share the depths of human depravity she has witnessed. This is a place where the deep needs of people are not being met.

You can see that in the violence we inflict on our children, our spouses, our parents and ourselves. It is visible in the thriving methamphetamine industry and the number of bars a community can support. Distrust and disconnectedness, increased weapons permits, pernicious bullying, and the spread of harmful propaganda designed to alienate us from our neighbors are all signs that we are not shining enough light on the darkness which invades peoples’ lives.

And it seems to me that we are not doing this work because it is dangerous. We can’t be assured of the other person’s innocence. There is the possibility that the relationship can become toxic as the other’s addictions and ways of making decisions invade our carefully controlled apartments. We might have to set boundaries or let go of our own aesthetic tastes to make room for the new people in our lives. Frankly, there are people out there who would not hesitate to do us serious harm. Last, I sense that we are afraid our own lights-our faith, our witness, our Christ, our own souls -are not actually strong enough to make headway against the dark.

I asked Doug Walker how a person crosses the threshold. How do we go out the door of our church sanctuaries? How do we go in the visitor’s entrance of the prison, the hospital, or the social services building? He laughed and said it is a lot easier when you know someone there.

I asked Lee Schott why we don’t know the women who leave Mitchelville after serving their sentence. She didn’t know, but thought it had something to do with an idea that once someone has gone behind bars, they become this thing we call “a criminal” rather than a person we can know by name. She becomes effectively invisible to us because we in the church might distrust or judge her if we learned her past. She either enters into relationship with us hiding her past or chooses easier relationships with people who already know her name.

So what is going on with us that we are not teaching, preaching, and reaching into the lives of people such that we can show them that other name they have: the name they take on in Christ? Why are we so ashamed of shame? What makes us so afraid to shake hands with people we have never met? Is there something real we stand to lose by opening ourselves to rejection?

I believe that changing the world is as simple as going out and shaking hands with it.  And if you are looking for Biblical language to help you gather the courage to do so, I suggest spending a bit of time with Paul. He seems to have a good vocabulary for that kind of thing.

Oh, and you can always contact Doug , Lee or Dave as well, because I know they would love to hear from you. They would love to share their experience, expertise and doubts about how the church can best be about this work of setting captives free.

Doug Walker: dwalker@umc-gbcs.org

Rev. Lee Schott: revlas333@gmail.com

Rev. Dave Hobbs: david.hobbs@iaumc.org

 

 

 

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Lord Don’t Move the Mountain.

Doris Akers wrote a song titled Lord Don’t Move the Mountain, sung most famously by Mahalia Jackson, in which the singer asks God not to remove stumbling blocks, “for when our tribulations get too light we tend to stray from thee.”

Sometimes, as we look out over the world, there are so many really big problems, it can get overwhelming. Every newscast and self-proclaimed prophet tells us the end is near and that there is no hope. So many of  our political and social experiences leave us stymied and disappointed in our lofty goals, that it  can seem easier to simply roll over, pull the covers up over our heads and go to sleep until the storm passes over.

In this Easter season, however, we are reminded that there is no defeat-no death-that God has not overcome. If we are in practice, we remember that faith-not strength, infallibility, perfection nor even goodness-is the power by which we climb those mountains or face those crucifixions.

In our baptism we accept the freedom and power to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” so that we can become closer to Christ. And that should give us courage to poke our heads out from under the covers. The whole weight of the world is not on our shoulders alone. The evils, injustices, and oppression that can seem so overwhelming are not ours to face all by ourselves. In fact, they may actually be the obstacle courses and climbing walls on which to build the soul muscles we need to stay in love with God.

 

Of Shelter Services and Social Responsibility

Important_government_shutdown_notice_for_the_Stature_of_LibertyI recently had coffee with the Executive Director of domestic violence and sexual assault services for a multi-county area in Iowa. At one point, I asked her how the changes to shelter services were going. For those who don’t know, domestic violence and sexual assault services in Iowa are undergoing a massive modernization effort. You can read more about these changes here: Modernizing Iowa’s System of Services for Victims of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

Her face literally brightened, and she sat a little straighter in her seat. Without downplaying the difficulties and the struggles she and her staff have faced, she was able to name a large number of real and unexpected benefits that have come about since her service branch shut down its shelter.

She described new life and a resurgence of energy in the staff. She talked about the increase in real value aid her branch has been able to offer because of the financial resources which have been freed up. Suddenly, new vistas of opportunity to make a difference and to have significant impact in her service area seem to be opening up.

While we were talking, a few of the things she said kind of lit up in my mind. The kind of institutional change she was describing is the kind of institutional change the United Methodist Church is trying to take on itself-a modernization of systems and services to better enable a mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Here are some of the similarities:

1) Reluctance to embrace change: shelters are the services people know about, and they are “the way” to meet the needs of victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Closing shelters will leave people in danger and take away an important service that is needed.

-While the overall modernization plan does not include closing ALL shelters, it does include shutting some of them down.  In order for the entire system to change, some branches will have to actually stop offering the services they have traditionally been designed to supply.

2) Concerns about sustainability of funding: state and federal funding cuts were inevitable, so change was necessary.

-The system was going to change and would do so either of its own will or via downsizing in staff and reduction of services because of budget cuts.  Rather than slowly closing down bits and pieces of the program while increasing the burden of operation on fewer and fewer staff members, a decision was made to reorient around the core mission: providing sustainable services to victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

3) Having to let go.

-The Executive Director had to get into a place where she could see the possibility that doing things a different way might meet more needs than doing things the traditional way. She became convinced that a both/and approach to services was not feasible and she chose to actively participate in reorganization efforts rather than holding on to the system and services she helped to create. To move forward she had to let go.

There were two other things she described which I think are key to her system’s adaptability.

1) Being given permission to fail.

-In order to try out new methods and approaches to mobile advocacy, legal services and rapid rehousing, there had to be a lot of grace from those in leadership. Change does not guarantee that the system will improve. There is no map of new territory. Sometimes you are going to get stuck in a ditch. Knowing that someone else with a truck and a winch is ready and willing to come pull you out makes the journey into the future possible.

2) To meet needs, the institution has to go out of its way to be present where and when those needs arise.

-For years, the crisis intervention services in this multi-county area have offered social, educational, and healing opportunities at local jails, schools, rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, and with local law enforcement. They operated out of the assumption that people would not always come to them. Even before the critical need to change, they were halfway outside their buildings anyway.

As a church and as a conference, we are feeling pressures to change. Talking with the Executive Director helped me see we are not the only institution that is feeling the weight. Listening to her stories of renewal, liberation and surprising joy from what had to be an extremely painful surrender, I felt even more surely that rather than a point of death, the church is going through a rite of passage into new life.

As we navigate that canal, I hope our system has the adaptability that hers seems to have, because like Iowa’s domestic abuse and sexual assault services, I believe our communities need us. I believe they need people of faith, witnesses to hope, purveyors of peace, speakers of good will, and large numbers of people who believe their own good is inextricably bound to the good of other beings.

What Do Social Justice Ministries Look Like?

QuestionsA group of you have been thinking and praying together about faith and ministry. As you look around the church, you and your friends have come to the conclusion that there is not a robust social justice ministry. You are starting to feel like that is a place your church needs to grow. You have become convinced that in order to experience a vibrant and vital faith life, you are going to have to reach more deeply into the significant needs of your community. What’s more, you have read the research and you realize that you are going to have to take a different approach to these ministries if you stand a change of actually connecting with the people you intend to reach. In short, you have decided that you want to start doing social justice ministry, but you have no idea what that looks like.

Here are a few examples of ministries:

Fort Washington Collegiate Church (CRC) calls their social justice ministries You Matter. It has identified health, equality and service as three issues around which to organize. It hosts a weekly fitness class, promotes and sponsors healthy living workshops and cooking classes. The church also has a performance advocacy group and commits members to volunteerism with groups such as Habitat for Humanity. To read more about how they have engaged with these issues, visit their website: http://www.fortwashingtonchurch.org/our-ministries/social-justice-you-matter.

In Iowa, Matthew 25 is a ministry hub born out of a vision of whole life ministry that left the church building. It describes itself as

 “an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It exists to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, and to provide opportunities for people to act on their values through service.

Matthew 25′s vision is to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied. It is a highly innovative and collaborative organization that partners with others to work in three program areas: Neighborhood Building, Youth Empowerment, and Cultivate Hope.”

From building renovation to an urban farm education center, Matthew 25 ministries are embedded in the local culture of Cedar Rapids. To see how they have organized around these program areas, visit their website: http://www.hub25.org/ You can also arrange to visit Mathew 25 directly by contacting them: 201 Third Avenue SW Cedar Rapids, IA 52404; 319-362-2214; info@hub25.org

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland has both a corporate and individual approach to social justice ministry. They work with local schools and Family Promise of Greater Cleveland to respond to the needs of families-from housing and education to intergenerational relationship building. Their menu of programs can be seen at http://www.firstunitariancleveland.org/pages/service-justice-social-justice-ministries.htm

Social justice ministries are issue and cause ministries. We can sometimes get caught up in our political and religious viewpoints and forget that at the heart of mission is intimate relationship with people. Vital ministries are born out of a passion for justice, a heart of compassion for those the world uses most cruelly, and a deep, relationship with Christ. They are ministries of solidarity with, not ministries of pity for. As you start to build your bridge into your community via social justice, lean into your heart places.

Love is the energy which will fuel a passionate ministry. Good works without faith are dead, to make a turn on James. Don’t simply choose a cause or an issue and hope that work on that will bear fruit. Cultivate relationships with people such that their burdens become your own. I guarantee you that in doing so, issues and causes galore shall arise to meet your longing to be a disciple, to make disciples, and to transform the world.