Where there is real humility, all bonds are made free.” -St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
“These inmates put my prayer life to shame.” -Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, after visiting a prison with OCPM’s Director of Training and Spiritual Care, Fr. Stephen Powley
John was sentenced to eighteen months in a medium security prison in 2019. Not long into his sentence, he felt compelled to start going to chapel and Bible studies, which were lead not just by the prison chaplain, but a few other inmates too “who were extremely passionate about Jesus and the Word of God.” One of these inmates was George, who was raised Orthodox and already involved with OCPM. John began praying and reading Scripture daily, but once the Orthodox devotionals George shared inspired John enough to join OCPM’s mailing list, that’s when things really started to change.
“Less than a week later, I received icons and prayers, and beautiful pictures of God’s creation every week for more than a year. Sometimes, I received more than two or three correspondences [per week] from the OCPM with inspiring messages, reminders of who to pray and intercede for, and the consistency was astounding! I began to add prayer time and meditation to my daily routine, and my prayer life literally came alive. The more I spent time with God, the more aware I became of His presence, and I realized He not only heard me, but was directly answering my prayers. I entered prison with shallow faith and left prison with deep faith and a new identity.”
But John’s life wasn’t just changing for himself. Christ began ministering to other prisoners through John.
“Every time I received a colorful icon, or a beautiful nature picture (God’s wonderful creation), I adorned my prison cell with seasonal photos; and the dark gray walls became a sanctuary, holy and pleasing to the Lord, full of light and beauty. My peers looked to me as a spiritual leader and scheduled time with me to learn and apply the Word of God into their own lives and relationships.”
John is just one example of the kinds of transformations that OCPM staff and volunteers have witnessed in prisons all across America. The darkness of prisons is not excluded from the light of Christ; indeed, in the darkest surroundings, Christ shines all the brighter.
While we are grateful for the ways we have been able to minister to those in prison, what people outside of our ministry may be less aware of is how prisoners have ministered to us. This shouldn’t surprise us. Christ Himself said when we spend time with those in prison, we are spending time with Him (Matthew 25:36).
In the vast loneliness of the prison system, it is not just the prisoners who suffer, but all of us. If Christ identifies Himself with the prisoner, whatever is done to a prisoner is done to Christ. When a prisoner is locked away, Christ is locked away. When we are separated from those in prison, we are separated from Christ.
At OCPM we want to bridge this separation by sharing some of what we have witnessed from prisoners, so that you may be blessed by them as we have been blessed.
All throughout this Lenten season, OCPM will be publishing a series of reflections on prison ministry, prayer, and repentance called Ascending Together, bringing together stories from our ministry with excerpts from The Ladder of Divine Ascent by St. John Climacus, which is read by Orthodox Christians all around the world in this season.
Lent is a time when Orthodox Christians are encouraged to make a renewed effort to grow closer to Christ. We hope sharing these stories will not only show you how Christ is working in and through the lives of prisoners, but will also shine a light on how Christ is working in and through your own lives. Like John, may we all be inspired this Lent to strive toward Christ—not for our own sake, but for others’.
We can be with Christ in prison. We can learn from prisoners on the path of repentance. Through the power of Christ, we can work to ascend together, that God may be glorified.
If you want to read more of our Lenten series, “Ascending Together,” subscribe to our blog here, or follow Orthodox Christian Prison Ministries on Facebook and Instagram @TheOCPM.