The Challenge of Prison Ministry During the Pandemic

It’s Wednesday morning and I say my prayers before a small copy of the Hawaiian myrrh streaming Icon of the Theotokos and I anoint myself with the holy myrrh and ask for Her Holy intercession and protection as I leave the Church rectory for a short 15 minute ride to the state institution at Waymart, Pennsylvania, where I serve as a contract chaplain and coordinate a visitation internship program with St. Tikhon’s Seminary. This program has been in existence since 1987 and Orthodox Seminarians receive training in the “Ministry of Presence” and fulfill the scriptural mandate of Matt.25:36 “I was in Prison and you came to Me.”  It’s a cold and brisk morning in Northeastern Pennsylvania, and I arrive at 9:45 a.m.  in the front entrance of the prison.  As I make my way into the facility, I am met with a nurse dressed in protective gear to take my temperature before, I’m permitted to enter into the secure part of the prison.  I pass the test and bio-in. I put on my mask and make my way to the control center and get the keys to my office.

The Prison has been in complete lockdown since the second week of March. The complete lockdown restricts the movement of inmates and thus helps keep everyone safe during the Covid 19 Pandemic. During the Lockdown, no visitors, interns, family members and volunteers are permitted to come into the institution. In late summer, during August, a creative and very innovative visitation program begin to emerge through the modern technology of “Zoom.”  With the mutual cooperation between St. Tikhon’s Seminary and the Prison, the visitation program has become quite successful and truly mutually beneficial for the inmates and seminary interns.

As I make my way to the particular units which have been designated for the “Zoom” visitation, I’m met with excitement and genuine enthusiasm coming from the inmates. I’ve been permitted to use a particular conference room for the visitation and I make a “Zoom” connection between St. Tikhon’s Seminary and SCI Waymart.  I have a growing list of inmates who want to participate in this virtual visit. I call the officer on the unit block and I read the names of the inmate participants, and they begin making their way from the dormitory style unit to the conference room, which is set up for us with a nice size screen and computer. The program has become so successful we have to break it down into two groups of inmates and each group lasts for at least one hour.  We begin this computer-generated visit with a prayer offered by one of the intern seminarians and the session begins.  We have 15 seminarian interns waiting and eager to participate in this virtual visit and seeing their excitement on the screen and the inmates expressing genuine gratitude and this week breaking out with spontaneous clapping for having the opportunity to hear from someone say, “How are you doing? Or “How has your week been since we last saw each other.” As we continue in this program, each week creates its own dynamic and I let the conversation take its own course. The main focus of this ministry is; “someone cares and is willing to listen.”  All of us have a story that we want to share with someone.

I’m very grateful to SCI Waymart for allowing this pioneering virtual visit to take place and to the administration of St. Tikhon’s Seminary for this cooperative thinking out-of-the box venture.  Also for OCPM for providing every year, the material necessary for our interns; books and icons for this outreach and thus help ensure the success of this unique program. For many years, Fr. Stephen Powley came to St. Tikhon’s Seminary prior to the beginning of the visitation program to hold a retreat and share all his beautiful insights and provide encouragement to all the seminarians and make a visit to the facility and speak with staff, inmates and seminarians, so he can see and hear first-hand the important work being accomplished. This year obviously, because of the pandemic he was unable to come. We are praying for a time, when it will be safe for the new director of OCPM; Niko Petrogeorge together with Fr. Stephen to make a visitation to our facility and go on tour. I’m very thankful to all of you who are reading this article and support OCPM. God Bless the new technology like “Zoom” which has become a household word in our country and it has provided continuity for this God-inspired visitation ministry to continue.

Fr. John Kowalczyk

Director of Field Education Studies at St. Tikhon’s Seminary

Contract Chaplain, SCI Waymart

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