What would inspire a grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of two to want to be involved with prison ministry? His name is Douglas Charles – my precious son who died in 1991 at the age of 23 as a result of using drugs. He left behind his then 13-month-old son John who is now 28 and recently married.
Douglas was in and out of jail over a period of 7 years. There were those at church who looked down at Douglas instead of having compassion and praying. During those years of struggle no one from the church visited him – not even a priest. It deeply saddened me that the Church was unresponsive to an opportunity that God had given them to come to see Him, i.e. our Lord, in jail. In His discourse about the Last Judgment Jesus said: “I was in prison and you came to Me” (Matt. 25:36).
Fourteen years after Douglas’ death, I asked my parish priest for a blessing to begin the first Orthodox Prison Ministry in northern Idaho. I sent a presentation to the county jail which was based on the book I was writing at the time entitled “The Tools of Spiritual Warfare” which would become the most popular book in the jail. I convinced the Sheriffs’ Chaplain, Captain and Lieutenant that if I were given an opportunity to teach the inmates about spiritual warfare, I could help to reduce the rate of recidivism. They liked what I had to say, and I was cleared to bring the Orthodox Christian faith into the jail. John Mattmiller, a fellow parishioner, joined me which allowed me to minister to both men and women.
Douglas taught me more than I taught him. He could see the Christ in everyone. He had a heart for the lost. One day I spotted him walking on a street in our neighborhood with a very strange looking older fellow, and so I later asked him, “Why are you hanging around with someone like that fellow Doug?” To which he responded: “Mother, I am so surprised at you. I thought you would know that as Christians we are to love the unloveables and to be friends to the friendless?” What could I say?
On another occasion, Douglas came home after serving time in Juvenile Hall and I found him sobbing as he threw himself down on my bed and besieged me, “Mom, please pray for all those kids I met in Juvenile Hall. I come from a good family and live in a beautiful home. But they come from the “concrete jungle” where they spend all their time trying to figure out how to stay alive without being killed by some gang member.” He was sobbing so hard that his body was shaking. I held him and prayed fervently as I wiped away his tears. Douglas had so much compassion.
Douglas lived for a short time in a Boys’ Home and the rules of that home were such that you could not have a pet. Douglas knew this. But when he saw an emaciated dog limping along in front of the school bus, he made the bus driver stop, got off, picked up the dog and took it to the Boys Home under his jacket. He hid it in his bedroom and gave up his own food so the dog could live. Such was his heart.
The Executive Director of OCPM, Fr. Stephen Powley, was once asked: “What does Orthodox evangelism look like?” He responded: “First, people must see Jesus in us; in our words and actions. Second, we must see Jesus in everyone, no matter how tarnished they may appear. As long as we cannot see Jesus Christ in everyone, we are His lost sheep.”
Fr. Stephen’s words were substantiated in my encounter with three very young inmates between the ages of 19 and 21 whom I had the blessing of ministering to. These young ladies had never met me before and I’m certain they must have thought I was nuts when I began to exclaim “You are so beautiful!” over and over again. I was crying uncontrollably, and I kept saying to John who was ministering with me that day, “I can’t stop crying nor can I move.” God, the Holy Spirit, was obviously trying to show me something in the bright light that encompassed them about which made them appear so, so beautiful. Then I felt the following words pressed upon my heart, “I am letting you see the purity of their soul before it became tarnished by sin. Your job is to bring out my image in them.” I was so glad that John was a witness to this event, otherwise I am certain many would not have believed me.
Douglas could see the Christ in everyone. He would say to me: “Mother, don’t ever judge a person by the way they look – if seeing a person with tattoos, a bandana around the head, an Indian rope bracelet strapped on his wrist and you judge them as being less than you and consider them unworthy of your attention or being your equal, then you are likely to miss out on getting to know a very sensitive, caring person. He was right! The incarcerated give us an opportunity to be a part of the MIRACLES God is working out in their lives. We miss out when we judge them.
Jesus didn’t come for the righteous, but for the Lost Sheep of the House of Israel. We must never assume that the persons behind bars in our prisons and jails of North America are the only lost. When I began my ministry to the incarcerated, a couple of people I knew said to me: “Yuck! How can you deal with these scummy people?” They saw them as dirty dishrags you toss aside. These people in the jails and prisons of America are also created in the image and likeness of God. And when we think of them in this way, we are saying that “Our Lord is a scumbag.” Why do I say that? Because Jesus said: “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it unto Me.” We sin against the image of God in these people. This is why King David said in his Psalm of Repentance, Psalm 51, “Against You only have I sinned and done this evil in Your sight.” He had sinned against the image of God in both Bathsheba and her husband.
Douglas’ life here on earth was short, but it was meaningful – it had purpose. I am so thankful to him for all that he taught me, and I am likewise thankful to God for the twenty-three years he gave me with His son. Our children are not our own. They belong to God; and we are merely their stewards. According to Psalm 126:3 (127) “Behold, children are the Lord’s inheritance.”
Not everyone can go into the jails and prisons of America; but everyone can help support those of us who do by making donations to OCPM so that the work of this beautiful ministry in bringing the Orthodox Christian faith to the incarcerated might flourish and bear much fruit for the Kingdom of God. What a wonderful way to express our love for our Lord’s willingness to die for us. What an awesome God we serve and love! The Babe in the manger, whose nativity we celebrate at this time of year, was born to die that we might live. He reunited the Creator with His creation, the divine with the human, taking upon Himself our sins that we might have eternal life. Blessed be the Name of the Lord!