How to Be Appreciated

Certificate of Appreciation for Circle of the Word program led by Grace UMC, Dayton

Never in my life have I received so many words of appreciation as I have since starting to tell and teach biblical stories inside “correctional” institutions. This summer, three of us from Grace United Methodist Church of Dayton, Ohio started a Circle of the Word at the women’s prison here in our hometown. Each time we have gone has been an extraordinary experience and we always receive many thank-you’s from the women.

As if that weren’t enough, the prison had a volunteer appreciation event to recognize the contributions of various agencies that lead programs for the women of DCI (Dayton Correctional Institution). There were plenty of faith-based programs, but we seemed to be the only local church represented. Our certificate will be officially presented to the congregation on December 10 and Grace’s biblical storytelling ministry there highlighted.

For our part, we try to communicate to the women how much we appreciate their presence and participation. It’s difficult to convey how much we receive from their insights about the story, and their generous sharing of connections with it from their own life experience. The last time we went I was so caught up in their stories of connection to Mark 1:21-28 (Jesus Rebukes an Unclean Spirit) that I completely lost track of the time. The chaplain had to intervene to make sure the women got back in time for “count.”

So, to be appreciated AND appreciative, start a Circle of the Word in your local jail or a nearby prison. My book will tell you how as well as why—A Breath of Fresh Air: Biblical Storytelling with Prisoners. To learn more, visit my book’s page on the Wipf and Stock Publishers site.

Women with Nothing

They won’t care what you know unless they know that you care.

Chaplain Willie L. Templeton, Jr.
September 25, 2017

Most every month, Chaplain Templeton holds a meeting for those of us who volunteer at the jail. He always has some pearls of wisdom for us, gleaned from his 20 years experience working in the jail. Before becoming Chaplain and Program Coordinator, Willie, as he prefers to be called, was a Corrections Officer (AKA “C.O.”). So he is not naïve about the population he serves. Last month he told us, “Just because they’re coming to Bible class or to church, doesn’t mean their mind is in the right place.”

Willie regularly warns us to be vigilant and pay attention to guard against contraband, making sure that whatever we take in the jail, we take back out. So we count our pencils, crayons, and markers. Early on, I quit taking in pens after I discovered a number missing their insides. At one of these meetings I learned that the inside of pens is a common target. Another time one of the clipboards we use was found in a pod. So now we count those, too.

While he is not naïve, Willie is very compassionate. Last month he emphasized, “They really need our love and our prayer.” When he said this I gave thanks for the Monday Morning Prayer Group at Grace who faithfully pray for each woman who writes a “prayer card” at the end of Sacred Stories class, as most of the women do.

Willie told us that most of those in jail have abandonment issues, and stressed how important it is that we show up when we say we will, and if we can’t make it to let him know. He is concerned about what happens to people when they are released from jail and return to the community. He wants us to think about what he calls “aftercare” with resources that can point them in the right direction. Dayton Cooks is one such resource. In early October I told the group about the upcoming session and several women who were interested took brochures.

And he told us about the women who arrive in jail with nothing—with none of the basic toiletries that we take for granted: soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste and toothbrush, etc. These things can be purchased in the jail commissary, but many of the women have no money.

When possible, Willie distributes sample size toiletries to those in need. He asks for our help getting them. When I travel I get as many hotel items as I can to bring back for the women in jail who have nothing. Willie says Walmart is a good place to get sample size.

One more thing. Willie says there is also a need for underpants. Like I said, the basics, for women with nothing.

Shattered

There is a young woman in the jail Circle who is dealing with serious grief. I went to visit her, though she hadn’t requested a visit. She was very grateful and we talked for quite some time. There were tears of grief, regret, and loneliness, but there was also hope and new direction. She is new to all things religious, a former cynic. She is giving faith in God a try.

This week was her third time attending Circle. As soon as we got in our classroom she handed me a prayer song she had written. She said she had a tune but couldn’t remember it very well. I asked her if she would read it for us, which she did toward the end of our time. I also asked if I could share it with others and she readily agreed to that as well. I told her it would be anonymous; she said I could use her name. I told her when she got out, if she still wanted to, we would share her name as well.

Her prayer song was inspired by the stories we have been learning in Mark about John the Baptist and Jesus’ baptism and testing. One thing we focussed on was how God told Jesus, “I love you; I’m very pleased with you.” I said that I believe God feels that way about each of us and we should listen to hear the words addressed to us as well as to Jesus. This young woman is beginning to hear and to believe that good news.

Shattered

How could God forgive me again?
Will I ever learn? Probably not…
But Jesus knows where you’ve been
He knows every hurt we’ve got…

(chorus)
he says “I’ve been here all along,
Even when you pull away.
Through the right and wrong,
I stand by you every day.”

Tears flow as she cried
“my heart’s just too shattered”
Jesus said, “That’s why I died
Saving you is what mattered!”

She finally took his hand
Letting Jesus lead the way
He will always understand
His life he chose to pay…

(chorus)
he says “I’ve been here all along,
Even when you pull away.”
Through the right and wrong,
he stood by you every day.

The cause is never lost
It’ll never be too late
No matter what the cost,
Jesus turns your pathway straight…

September 27, 2017
Montgomery OH County Jail

Second Baptism

Last Friday at the prison we did two Connections rounds for the story of Jesus’ baptism and testing (Mark 1:9-13).

The first one was about baptism—our own or someone else’s. One of us who is a Circlekeeper started us off by telling how she requested and received a second baptism, done when she was old enough to remember and choose for herself.

Several of the women had also been baptized twice. They apparently had a course about baptism at the prison and then, if one chose, she would be baptized. It was clearly very meaningful for all of them, a spiritual experience so profound they found it difficult to describe, but that they felt changed their lives.

As I listened, I thought about my worship professor in seminary and how strongly he argued against more than one baptism. It made sense at the time, in the abstract, but not so much last Friday with these flesh and blood Christians. I wasn’t about to say their second baptisms were “theologically incorrect” or somehow didn’t count.

To tell the truth, I think those baptisms counted for a lot. I think they were fully sacramental, outward signs of inward grace. As I heard their stories I imagined God saying to each of them just as God said to Jesus, “I am very pleased with you!”

Storyboard for “Jesus Is Baptized and Tested” (Mark 1:9-13)

Memorable Moments

What we heard when we listened to the story about Jesus’ baptism and testing from Mark

Yesterday we engaged the story of “Jesus Is Baptized and Tested” (Mark 1:9-13). A couple of the “Word I Heard” responses were not words or phrases in the story, but had come to the women while listening to the story. That’s an option I give.

One response was “depressed descendants” and another was “second chances.” Another I recall, which was in the story, was “God said, ‘I love you.” The first person to get the talking piece shared these words.

In a follow-up round to naming our words/phrases, participants were invited to tell why they picked the words they picked. Several women shared their reasons. Their explanations were spoken “from the heart” as our Circle guidelines suggest.

I had initially passed since I couldn’t recall that any word or phrase had particularly caught my attention while I told the story. But as I listened to the women, I recalled words that did stand out for me. They were similar to those spoken by the first person to share. They were, “God tells us ‘I love you.'” I wanted each woman present, me included, to hear God saying “I love you.”

I always wish I could remember what is said In Circle rounds because there is often significant spiritual wisdom expressed. I am regularly impressed by how articulate and well spoken and thoughtful responses of the women can be. But it is usually just a blessing of the moment that leaves an impression rather than a concrete memory.

Almost on time our Circle was over and the chaplain arrived to escort the women back to their pod. The group started to file out the door. On her way out one woman new to Circle said, “That was fun!” I was glad to hear it.

7 Ways to Engage Neighbors Impacted by Mass Incarceration

In 1998, George (Leo) Diaz preached for his graduating class of a program sponsored by New York Theological Seminary. Mr. Diaz was an inmate incarcerated in Sing Sing Correctional Facility. His sermon on Ezekiel 37:1-14 began with this invitation:

There are vast numbers of valleys filled with dry bones in the world today, but for now let us turn our attention to the prisons where a whole multitude of brothers need that breath of life blown into them.

What has Jesus empowered you to do with regard to our neighbors impacted by incarceration? Thanks to misguided public policy, the United States has the highest percentage of incarcerated citizens in the world. So we have a lot of neighbors in this situation: those who are inside penal institutions, those who have been inside; friends, family, and victims of those who are or have been inside

There are so many angles and issues related to the criminal justice system it is hard to know where to start. It can be so overwhelming that you don’t want to start at all! For each angle, each issue, there is an opportunities–a way in which individuals and faith communities can get involved in addressing the realities of mass incarceration.

Too decide which direction to turn, I found a helpful categorization of these ways in a resource compiled by Betsey Heavner. Her “Congregational Toolbox for Prison Ministry” is available online from the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church. The Toolbox categorizes seven ways for churches to embrace our neighbors impacted by incarceration, from prevention to advocacy.

Download a PDF for a handout I created listing the seven categories, with suggested activities under each:
7-ways-to-engage_handout

Click here to visit the GBOD site and order the “Congregational Toolbox for Prison Ministry” PDF.

 

Launching “Telling the Good News”

 

“Word I Heard” cards from Sacred Stories on Mark 1:1-8

After a two-month break, we launched both Sacred Stories (jail) and Circle of the Word (prison) this week. The theme for the series this Fall is “Telling the Good News: Stories of Mark 1” beginning with the story of John the Baptizer (Mark 1:1-8).

Both groups of women were terrific. We had 13 come to Sacred Stories. Susan, my co-Circlekeeper, had told John 1:1-14 for worship this week on Sunday and I had preached. So, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God” was rumbling around in our heads even as we engaged “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”

After we all spent time learning Mark’s story, Susan told John 1:1-14. The two stories are so similar in some ways and so different in others. Her telling to this group was profound. Our attention was riveted on her, and on the story. As Jesus promised, the kingdom of God drew near.
One of the women caught the allusion to the Genesis story, too. I think it would be interesting and meaningful to do a series on the three books of the Bible that all start with a reference to “beginning.”
When we started a program at the prison this past June I tried a new thing. Sacred Stories class meets every Wednesday afternoon. while Circle of the Word  only meets twice a month. In order to stay in synch between the the two programs I experimented with doing the same story twice at the jail.
It worked better than I anticipated. I didn’t feel I had to cram all the basic activities into one 90-minute session; I had two, which created a much calmer atmosphere because I didn’t feel rushed. Plus in Week One I could encourage participants to work on the story during the week after they first learned it, and on Week Two invite them to perform it. Whoever told the story, no matter how sketchy, earned a gold star sticker. I always had takers.
Our third Circlekeeper, Elaine, left on a bus tour bound for Washington DC early this morning. SoHope and I were on our own. This turned out fine because we only needed one circle for the eight women who attended. Again, it was a sacred time–houghtful women who participated very well.
After an initial telling and administrative stuff (attendance, guidelines, etc.) we started with a lion hunt. It brought smiles and energy as usual. We had a couple of older women, but mostly I’d guess 25-35 and one young one who didn’t look much older than 20.
I also taught the Greeting Song before the Storyboard exercise so they would partner up easily. That is always a winner.

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False Start

We were scheduled to start our eight-session series at the women’s prison last Friday. Everything was ready to go and we were there almost on time, but for the second time this summer the Assistant Chaplain forgot and was late. This time we were so late getting down to the chapel that women had come and were long gone to other activities. The Assistant Chaplain tried to round them up again, but only two showed up. So we decided to cancel and start our Fall series in two weeks. Hopefully we haven’t lost the enthusiasm of the women. Time will tell.

We did have a back-up plan, devised in July when we thought we might not have class (but did). We went out for breakfast!

Ichthus

This Fall we will engage the stories from the first chapter of Mark at both the Montgomery County Jail and the Dayton Correctional Institution. The theme of the series is “Telling the Good News: Stories of Mark 1.” This will be the fifth year we have sown seeds of grace among incarcerated women through this series of stories.

Mark begins his gospel by telling its title: “The Beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The second time we went through this series I told the women about the “ichthus” sign which comes from Mark’s title and was used by early followers of Jesus as a secret symbol. The women readily recognized it as commonly seen on car bumpers, sometimes with a Darwinian twist.

The next year I gave more detail about the ichthus sign. The women were fascinated, so I developed an “About the Story” handout, which we read aloud, Greek and all:

Ichthus (ik-thoos) is the Greek word meaning “fish.” It was used by early followers of Jesus as a secret symbol because in Greek, each letter corresponds to a word from the title of Mark’s Gospel: “…Jesus Christ the Son of God.” The Greek spelling for ichthus is:  These are the first letters of the Greek words Iesous (Iota), Christos (Chi), Theou (Theta), Uios (Upsilon), and Sotor (Sigma). In English, the five Greek words are “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior.”

Today you see the ichthus symbol on car bumpers, sometimes with a Darwinian twist (feet). These are the first letters of the Greek words Iesous (Iota), Christos (Chi), Theou (Theta), Uios (Upsilon), and Sotor (Sigma). In English, the five Geek words are “Jesus Christ God’s Son Savior.”

I have learned not to underestimate the quest for biblical knowledge inside the jail and prison. And that’s good news, too.

Feedback Survey

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” (John 20:19b)

Occasionally I ask the women attending Sacred Stories (our Circle of the Word at the county jail) to give feedback about the story we have learned. I also ask them to indicate on the form whether or not they grant their permission for me to share their feedback.

On the last Wednesday in March our story was from John 20:19-23. I usually call this story “Behind Locked Doors” because of the strong connection between the disciples being in a locked room and our circle happening in a locked room.

Other times I call it “Peace Be With You” to remind us that just as Jesus appeared to the disciples in their state of distress and offered them peace, so the Holy Spirit is present with us offering peace in the midst of whatever turmoil we experience.

Here are responses two women wrote to… Something the story says to me:

  • That forgiveness is given to those that forgive. I believe that so many people want forgiveness and make judgments, however they’re not willing to forgive others.
  • Let the Lord breathe the Holy Spirit into you and rejoice and receive it willingly.

Here is a sampling of responses to… What I would tell others about this class:

  • It’s an experience of who Jesus Christ is and some of the stories in the Bible
  • This is a very beautiful class that helps teach us more about the word of God
  • It’s very nice and easy flowing. I like how it makes it simpler to understand
  • It’s a good class. It teaches a lot about God. You take it step by step and I like that you break it down to understand.
  • It opens your mind and heart to Jesus

There were other survey responses that highlighted the value of an approach to biblical knowledge that facilitated understanding. There was clearly a desire to understand the scriptures. There seems to be a relationship between “breaking down the stories” into parts and the perceived ability to understand.

There were also expressions of appreciation for those of us who come to lead the Circle: “I truly appreciate you coming and spending time with us today.”

One woman articulated her appreciation for the love and care that is shown them: “The love she shows and how she reminds me, myself, to keep moving, be positive, God is with us always!”

And then there was the woman who wrote in response to “Here is what I would tell others about Sacred Stories Circle: “Nothing but good.”

Feedback like this helps us grow our own faith and continue in ministry with people who are incarcerated.

[Note: The quotes in this post are exact except for a few changes to spelling and punctuation.]