“Christ Meets Us Where We Are”: The Prison Ministry Journal of Toby John, Part 1

“This was the first time I have ever gone to visit a prison.” 

When Toby John, (MDiv St. Vladimir’s Seminary, Master of Social Work UT Arlington ) was hired this past year as OCPM’s new Prison Relationship Manager, he also became the first person to pilot a new Certificate in Prison Ministry program, created in partnership with OCPM, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and SCI Waymart, the Pennsylvania state prison facility only a few minutes away from the campus of St. Tikhon’s. This program has been developing over many years through the uniquely close relationship of these three entities; no U.S. prison is more open to Orthodox ministry than SCI Waymart, and no one is better equipped to train Orthodox clergy and laity in prison ministry than St. Tikhon’s and OCPM. Fr. John Kowalczyk (OCPM Director of Training and Spiritual Care, Chair of the Department of Pastoral Theology at St. Tikhon’s, and Prison Chaplain at SCI Waymart) makes this program possible. 

For two months, Toby followed Fr. John Kowalczyk through the halls of SCI Waymart and journaled through his experience. He immersed himself in the sights and sounds–the pain and the hopes–of those behind bars, and we are now fortunate enough to share in Toby’s journal together.

There aren’t life-altering revelations here, but signs of Toby’s daily walk with Christ in prison: his subtle shifts in perceptions of the Gospel readings he shared at Vespers services, his open and consistent listening to his brothers’ worries of reconnecting with their families after their release. 

For those discerning a call to in-person prison ministry, we hope Toby’s journal can help pave a reachable way forward for you. With the over 1 Million incarcerated in the United States, the fields are indeed white for harvest–but this doesn’t mean we need to be intimidated by the need. Christ will take our desire to help those in prison and show us what to do:

“[W]e have to meet the inmates where they are,” Toby writes. “This is what Christ does for us. He meets us where we are, and pulls us towards Him if we allow it.”

Tuesday, February 7, 2023

This was the first time I have ever gone to visit a prison. While driving there I was trying to get mentally prepared. I did not know what to feel or how to feel, simply because it was a completely new experience.

Following the paperwork filed with Fr. John, we took a small tour of the prison and spoke with a few inmates. I was nervous when we started to speak to the inmates, not because I was scared but because I did not know what to say or how to approach them. Fr. John made that process seamless. Fr. John continued to encourage me, which helped me feel more comfortable. Fr. John continued to emphasize the importance of the ministry of presence, which I feel like I have been doing through all of my social work/seminary internships (psych hospital, chaplaincy, and domestic violence shelter) without realizing that is what I have been doing. 

I have come to understand that the presence of ministry includes active listening. The inmates that we met with were very friendly, and it was clear that they liked and felt comfortable with Fr. John. Seeing this, I continued to tell myself that I pray I can have the same presence as Fr. John. After Fr. John introduced me to some of the inmates he knew, he asked me to pray out loud for them. Theoretically, it should have been “easy”, but this was something that was very difficult to do, because once again, I had no idea what to say. I didn’t want to offend any of the inmates and wanted to keep it generic, while still being a prayer that could be felt by everyone there. It felt that my generic prayer was “okay.” I know that prayer is prayer, but there was some part of me that felt incomplete after. I felt that it wasn’t as genuine as I wanted it to be, because I was more focused on saying the right words, instead of just praying from the heart.

This is something that I need to work on as my time continues here. It reminded me of the time I was completing my CPE unit and how nervous I felt at first, but as time went on, it became easier and more genuine.

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

I felt a little more comfortable today, and I am not sure if that was because I went in yesterday or if it is because we were going in groups. Some of the things that were running in my mind were similar to yesterday, such as saying the right thing versus simply being with the person. When we first went through the MHU (Mental Health Unit) there were a few inmates that were not able to communicate with us due to their psychosis, taking a nap, or possibly being heavily medicated.

Walking through the hallways gave me flashbacks of when I did my internship at a psychiatric hospital. During that time, there were some people that I was able to get through to and others not so much. It was a similar experience today. I was still worried about what to say, because I found myself being timid in volunteering to speak to the inmate or pray for them. I wanted to hear what the other interns were going to say so that I can replicate it.

It was interesting to see one inmate be very closed off initially, but he ended up praying the Lord’s Prayer with us. It showed me that we have to meet the inmates where they are. This is what Christ does for us. He meets us where we are and pulls us towards Him if we allow Him. This inmate allowed it when we asked to pray for him. I am looking forward to seeing how this inmate will react to us next week when we visit him again. Following these inmates, we met with some other inmates who were not restricted to their cells (can’t remember floor names). I had some good interactions with some of these inmates, and it was nice to hear how thankful they were for us.

Yesterday, Fr. John and I spoke deeply about the idea of religiosity and spirituality. Some people get so passionate about their religion that this is all they do and think about instead of having a spiritual life. I had an encounter with one inmate who was going through this. This inmate explained to me that he has made an agreement with God that he will be the sacrifice for the rest of the world in the third Heaven. When this inmate asked me about my faith and what I thought about the third Heaven, I attempted to explain to him that Christ has freed us by His death on the Cross and that God is merciful. He did not seem to agree and has been caught up in this idea of being the sacrifice and being thrown into the lake of fire. I did not know how to respond or continue the conversation and so this is something I need to talk through with Fr. John to have a better understanding on how to approach a situation like this.

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