Abundant Life, Compassion, Correctional Facility, Domestic Violence, Incarceration, Mission, New People, New Places, Prison, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, The Great Commission, Transforming the World, Whole Community, Women

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




Abundant Life, Conversations, Correctional Facility, Economy, Northeast District, Schools, Social Justice, Wellness

Toledo, Tama and Montour

OLIVER-BRIAN-152_X82RBMY2I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rev. Brian Oliver who serves Christ United Methodist Church in Toledo, IA as well as Living Faith UMC which has two campuses, one in Tama and one in Montour. He called me because he was looking for some resources, answers, and support for the work he has been doing in trying to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, IA open.

Though, to say that it is work he has been doing is misleading. It is work which a large number of people in Tama County have been doing. The facebook group KEEP IJH OPEN has 9,100 members and that is just the online support community, and does not necessarily reflect the number of people in Toledo and Tama who are involved. When I talked with Rev. Oliver, he lifted up the large-scale support this effort has in Tama County.

I asked him about his churches, and he jumped right back. “They support this 100%.  IJH is not a house of horrors. Tama/Toledo are not child abusers. I do not know whether the rest of the state is seeing through the smoke screen. “

He said of his churches and his communities that

. . . they love these kids.We have hundreds of stories from people who have come through the Iowa Juvenile Home.  How their lives were transformed.  How they never would have made it without the services offered there.

As he talked to me, it became clear that he was in the middle of grass roots organized community activism. He described the bipartisan support of legislators Senator Jack Hatch, Senator Steve Sodders, Representative Mark Smith, and Representative Pat Murphy. He talked about the effort to gather names and stories from former residents at IJH. His voice gained energy and volume as he described the letter writing and petition signing campaign that has been waged, and he grew passionate as he shared that

People talk like this is just Tama County whining about losing income, but it is more than that. The IJH is a place of last resort for ‘the female delinquent’ to use the language of the system. These girls, and some young men, have not been successful elsewhere, and they say they are going to place these girls . . but many of them are going back to the places the came from, and they won’t have the support . . . We know these children. We love these children. Our schools and organizations, our volunteers. They know how to work with the problems and issues they have.

Rev. Oliver also shared concern for the reasons that the State of Iowa has chosen to close the Iowa Juvenile Home. Those activated around this issue believe that Governor Branstad targeted IJH for closure and used sensationalized media coverage of isolated problems to blacken the name of the home and to indict the people who work there.  There is concern that money and the interests of private service providers are winning out over what Heath Kellogg ,Tama County Economic Development Executive Director, calls

“fundamental spiritual things like caring and respecting people . . . qualities of love and trust, which together create the freedom for us to make the right decisions, to connect with others, to challenge and to innovate. “(1)

In my role as Social Justice and Mission LDM,  I have been asked to highlight the ministries of mission and justice with which our local churches are engaging.  Speaking with Rev. Oliver, I was energized and excited to hear his engagement with this issue and the support he has received from his churches. He was almost incapable of articulating the depth of meaning, and the richness of cost that this effort has asked of him.  I could hear conviction and surprise mingled in his voice as he talked about the meetings, the actions, the education, the conversations, and the coming together that this effort to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home open has created.  There was no separation of church from town, from the members of the UMC’s and the people of Tama County.

At one point he said to me, “I imagine that if you and I sat down and had coffee together, we would not agree on a lot of things, but this isn’t a political thing, its about people.”

* As of the writing of this post, a lawsuit has been filed with the hope of stalling the scheduled closing of the IJH on January 16

Abundant Life, Conversations, Correctional Facility, Poverty, Schools, Social Justice

Income Inequality

Church after church, pastor after pastor, and layperson after layperson name poverty as the most significant issue facing their communities and the world.  Yet poverty is not so much an issue as it is a web of intersecting issues, originating from different sources, yet coming together in a recognizable pattern of violence, insecurity, aborted potential, mental turmoil, disease and fear.  In this video, President Obama speaks to one of those issues, the issue of income inequality:

Agricultural Community, Central Iowa, Conversations, Correctional Facility, North Central Iowa, Poverty, Schools, Social Justice

Flowers Blooming in the Desert

I visited with Pastor Anita Bane in the office of the Rockwell City United Methodist Church. It was a blustery, yet beautiful day to drive West of I-35 on Hwy. 20.  The sky was robin’s egg blue, and there was still a little bit of green in the gold of harvested fields.

Coming in to Rockwell City, I saw grain elevators against the horizon, and I noticed a sign for the North Central Correctional Facility. I passed the Rockwell City welcome sign and the St. Francis Cemetery. Almost immediately, I turned south to get to the Rockwell City church.


The Rockwell City UMC is a modern church.  There are no steps to navigate to get in the front door, and there is a wide and well-lit walkway which leads directly to a large foyer and lobby area with tile and carpet.  The bathrooms are set up to conserve energy and water resources, as well as being well-lit and family and wheelchair or walker friendly.  Right across the street from the church is a newer elementary school. I stopped to take a couple of pictures.  I could not capture both the cross and flame and the bell in a single frame.  I imagine that these two pieces of sculpture are ties to the church’s history.

IMG_20131119_100308_368 IMG_20131119_100301_905

A small agribusiness community with people employed by the Iowa State Correctional System as well as the families of both prison employees and those incarcerated, I get a sense that Rockwell City has a long memory and a changing demographic structure.  It seems like it could be a town where identity is a bit dislocated: those whose families are rooted here, and those who are new to town; long-held traditions of governance and behavior encountering new rhythms of life and community activity.

Pastor Bane serves two churches: the Rockwell City UMC and Jolley UMC, which is a country church.   She sees poverty as the biggest mission and justice issue in Calhoun County.

She shares stories from the Jolley UMC where the people, according to Pastor Bane, take Jesus seriously when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27).  She says that the church has decided that they are going to love one another and this is evidenced by the fact that they include one another across stereotypes.

-A young, single mother finds aunts, uncles, moms, dads and cousins there who are willing to overlook a checkered past and current economic difficulties.

-A musician, losing her way in a hymn, receives encouragement and applause.

-When Pastor Bane lifts up Imagine No Malaria after Annual Conference and suggests “a hundred” [dollars] as a modest offering the church could make, they misunderstand her to mean “a hundred nets,” and give $1000 to the campaign.

Pastor Bane says she just sits back and watches this church go.  Both she and her office assistant describe the Jolley UMC as a little blooming flower.   Both their spirits visibly rise at the simple mention of that church.   They light up a little as though reflecting the love, joy, peace, faithfulness and hope clearly present there.

Though both Jolley and Rockwell City act to meet direct needs through food and clothing drives, Pastor Bane would like to see her churches respond with something more.  As we talked, I kept getting a sense that time and relationship are the greatest barriers to that deeper engagement with issues related to poverty.

The circles of relationship in local churches can be closed at times.  Differences in socio-economic class are highlighted by worship language and structures that presume an upper middle-class background.  Invisible barriers are erected out of fear that the problems people see in the community may invade the church.  Church becomes something scheduled on a calendar, and people simply show up, rather than living Christ.

Pastor Bane sees in both the local church and in the wider Annual Conference an exhaustion born of doing.  She wonders what it might mean if we started sitting down with one another to ask, “How did you get to believe what you believe?”

What if each of us were to spend more time sharing ourselves with those we meet?

What if we invite the children in the elementary school across the street to tell us their story?

What if our goal in getting to know the people whose lives are entwined with the local correctional facility were ultimately to get to a place of identity and honoring our differences?

Would we be able to forge better alliances for facing the chaos we fear?

Would we be able to move past our stances of defense and open the circle of our embrace to those we distrust?

Would we, in fact, stop drowning in a sea of needs and start encountering greater gifts than we imagined possible?

I think these are great questions.  I know Pastor Bane is not alone in wondering these things.  I know she is not alone in wondering how to help her churches make the shift.  If you have stories or would like to connect with Pastor Bane in order to share ideas that work, please leave a comment or share resources here.  You can also reach out to Pastor Anita Bane via her profile at iaumc.org.