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:

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.








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!


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.]

“Holy COW!”—Circle of the Word Launched in Women’s Prison, Part II

Last fall I read that, while the incarceration rate for men has stabilized in recent years, women’s incarceration has skyrocketed. I also read about the impact on children when mothers are incarcerated—how it is much more drastic than with fathers (though both are devastating).

Put together those facts with the fact that my church has a team of women doing a Circle of the Word with women in the jail, and that we have a women’s prison right here in Dayton, suddenly it seemed like a no-brainer to explore starting a Circle there, at least that’s the message I heard when I asked God for guidance. So come January of this year I did.

At first it seemed like it might not work out for lack of time and space in DCI to start another program. Plus, I got the impression the chaplain wasn’t so sure about what I was proposing. I understand the hesitancy. It’s her job to vet programs. Especially religious programs.

From what I’ve heard from other chaplains, church people coming into jails and prisons aren’t necessarily bringing something positive for the inmates. Sometimes they just inflict more punishment on folk who are already experiencing punishment. As the chaplain at our county jail said,

“A lot of times the leaders of a Bible study or worship service can come off as self righteous or judgmental and beat them over the head about their decision-making. You don’t have to tell an inmate that they’re wrong. They know they’re wrong, they’re in jail.”

But she did give me a green light. She also gave me a different perspective on team development, which I took to God in prayer. Instead of looking for team members from other churches in the District, I decided to see if I could recruit them from Grace United Methodist Church, where people are familiar with biblical storytelling and accepting of the notion of relating to people behind bars.

Grace is also my primary base of ministry so the task of teamwork would be easier. Since I’m going on faith that I can manage this new program when I already am struggling to keep up with everything, that was an important piece of the discernment.

I asked our pastor and a lay leader for recommendations. The top two on our list both said yes. Praise God! That was a good sign.

So by February the team was in place, and by March we had a time slot. At the chaplain’s request I created a flyer that could be posted around the DCI campus (pictured above). We filled out all the paperwork for applying to volunteer as required by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

Then we waited. I had sent mine in first and its approval came within a couple of weeks. It was a couple of months before Elaine and Hope got theirs. Patience is one of the things you have to learn when ministering in a prison context, though I can’t say I succeeded. I have since learned that volunteer approval can take much longer. Big bureaucracy, understaffed.

We decided on a start date of June 9. In late May I called to see how many women had signed up to come, if any. The chaplain said twenty. Holy Cow! I’ve never done a circle with more than sixteen, and twelve is the max I put on it in the jail. Again, the chaplain gave me a new perspective, and I had to re-think things. I decided to cap it at twenty-four and have two Circles.

Our first series is called “Love Your Enemies.” The series starts with a teaching story from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, then continues with a story from each of the other three Gospels about Jesus practicing what he preaches: doing acts of love to people from enemy groups.

It’s the same series as we’re doing in the jail, but there we go every week for nine weeks so we spend two or three weeks on each story. In the prison we go every other week so we’ll do a different story each time. The stories we’re doing from Mark, Luke, and John are The Syro-Phoenecian Woman, The Centurion’s Slave, and The Samaritan Woman.

The week before our start date the chaplain said that twenty-four had signed up, and she had a waiting list. Holy COW! I’ll write about what happened another time.

“Holy COW!”—Circle of the Word Launched in Women’s Prison, Part I

Elaine, Hope, and I led the first Circle of the Word (COW) at the Dayton Correctional Institution (DCI) a week ago Friday. This week’s posts describe how that came about and a little bit about what happened. Last Wednesday I was telling my weekly coffee klatch friends about it and afterwards Pat said, “You should write another book.” She suggested I keep a journal about the experience.

I’m not sure that another book is in my future, but I thought her journaling suggestion was a good one. And I do have this blog. Confidentiality is essential, and would prevent the inclusion of personal details from Circle sessions, but probably there is much I could reflect on here without breaking the Circle promise to maintain confidentiality.

The launch of a Circle of the Word at DCI fulfilled a possibility I’ve envisioned for three years. I’ve been thinking about returning to a men’s prison because it was such a positive experience for all concerned back in 2014. That’s when I developed the COW model at a state men’s prison in southeast Ohio.

For various reasons the return of Circle of the Word to a prison context didn’t materialize. Until now. Apparently the Spirit had ideas other than mine about where the Circle would be and what it would look like. This week I’ll post the story of how it happened that we led a Circle here in Dayton with women incarcerated at a state prison. And I’ll write a bit about how it went last Friday, our first time together.

For sure I will benefit from recording a bit of what happens, but I’m hoping that writing it down will help others imagine themselves taking the initiative to bring Circle of the Word to a prison or jail in their community. It could also be an occasion to consider whether the Holy Spirit might be calling you to this work as well. Or maybe you’ll just enjoy sharing my adventure. That would be fine.

Circle Setup

On May 31 our circle at the jail engaged the story of “The Centurion’s Slave” (Luke 7:1-10). I took a photo of our circle setup, I think because all the “Word I Heard” cards had been arranged so neatly. This is a photo of the tablecloth we use to create the circle. It doesn’t look so wrinkly in real life! The talking piece that day was the Dachshund beanbag doll. The story has that important reference to dogs, which actually was more complex than I thought until I did some research on the story. We did a connection round about our feelings on dogs. The brown envelope holds our prayer cards.

Drug Dealers: A Dynamic Equivalent

One of the reasons I enjoy teaching stories in jail is because we almost always experience new perspectives on them. Sometimes the tellings are particularly creative as women interpret the stories in ways that make sense to them.

They may use an image that is a “dynamic equivalent” to the biblical image—different words reflecting our contemporary context, but preserving the meaning of the original context. Learning about how people who first heard the story would have understood it is a dimension of what we do in Circle of the Word.

The theme this May-June is “Love Your Enemies.” We are learning stories from all four Gospels, starting with Jesus teaching his disciples, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-48). After that we will engage three stories about Jesus practicing what he preaches, where he demonstrates love for his enemies.

At the end of the Circle when the women learned Jesus’ teaching from Matthew, I encouraged them to continue working on it as homework. The second week they were invited to tell it to the group. It was a week that Roberta Longfellow, Sharlyn Radcliffe, and Ellen Patton led the class. They told me about one particular telling that included a poignant example of using a dynamic equivalent.

In the third part of the Matthew teaching-story Jesus says, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Don’t even the tax collectors do the same?” One woman told this part of the story this way:

If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?
Don’t even the drug dealers do the same?

What a powerful connection this woman made with Jesus’ teaching. Her telling reflected understanding of the story in its original context and meaningful interpretation of it now.