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A Thanksgiving Message from Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.” Psalm 107:1

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

We would like to wish you and your family a blessed Thanksgiving!

Amidst this difficult and challenging year, we still have so much for us to be grateful for this Thanksgiving season. Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry is forever thankful to all of our supporters, especially during this pandemic, ensuring that those in prison and jails can continue to receive Christ and His Church.

Our brothers and sisters in prisons and jails write to us every day saying how thankful they are for this ministry and all who are a part of it. Through your support, an orthodox presence is possible and we are able to accomplish Christ’s commandment to ‘visit Him’ in prison.

“Wanted to take a moment to thank you from the bottom of my heart for your supportive cards and letters. You cannot imagine how much it helps a prisoner who has lost everything to hear consistently from a group of God’s people that never judge, never criticize, but offer support, love, and kindness. THANK YOU so very much!”

While the holiday season can be especially trying for families with an incarcerated loved one, Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry tries to fill that void with the love of Christ. Our experience and guidance ensures the church is well equipped and trained to provide the emotional and spiritual support required for the entire family.

“God bless you all. I am so very thankful to you all and my
kids too. They have seen a big difference in my life thanks to you all.
They told me to tell you thank you for all you have done and the
difference you have made in my life.”

As we end this year strong, we give thanks to the Lord for all the lives that have been transformed by His grace. Though we are unworthy servants, we humbly carry His light into the darkest of places so Christ and His church are never removed from one’s life during their incarceration. We also give thanks to God for all those who generously provide for this ministry so we may continue to do His work.

In Christ,

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

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Beyond the Bars Blog

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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Beyond the Bars Blog

Susan’s Story- How OCPM Transforms Lives

Susan is a sister in Christ who is serving time in a state prison in Texas.

She shares, “I used to dream about getting paroled— what I would eat first and finally getting a good night’s sleep. Now I dream of finally hearing the Divine Liturgy, experiencing the Mystery of the Eucharist…I pray for my Baptism and Chrismation.

Susan faced a serious reality check when she came to prison. She wondered
what had been missing in her life that brought her there and she began
searching for deeper meaning and truth.

Through the nightmare of coming to prison I held firm to my faith. There are many believers here, but prison is not God’s house; it’s His battlefield. Every day I cried out in hopelessness and despair. I did not yet know how to pray but God was guiding me,” Susan wrote.

Susan saw emptiness in Protestant ministry programs and was desperate
to find her path. She learned Biblical Greek in order to study the original New Testament text. While she could now read the scriptures in two languages, she realized she still needed help understanding them.

I remember well the prayers to the Lord, in need of someone to help guide me. God loved me enough to answer my prayers by sending me the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry. They helped unfold the layers of the true and ancient Faith. In doing so, they unfolded all the hurt and broken layers of my spirit in order for me to truly be healed by God.

This journey gave me the confidence and faith in myself to go back to college; I will graduate and be a certified Paralegal this year, a career I plan to pursue when I make parole, if that is where God leads me.

As an agency of the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops, we put into action Christ’s commandment to ‘visit Him’ in prison (Matthew 25:36) through the direct support of individuals like you.

We ask that you please keep people such as Susan in your prayers. Life-transforming events like this occur every day as Christ is always there for those souls incarcerated in the darkness of prisons and jails.

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Beyond the Bars Blog

The Impact of Incarceration on the Family and the Church

By Father Stephen Powley

There is an amazing story tucked in the Book of Joshua (chapter 7) in the Old Testament that is often overlooked. After the Israelites had taken the walled city of Jericho by the miraculous hand of God, they were to take a very small town called Ai. After the Israelites were soundly defeated, it was discovered that one man, Achan, had stolen something. His theft impacted the entire community and had been the cause of their defeat. 

This story can be applied to a local parish when a parishioner violates the law and goes to prison. It is not just that one person who is impacted. Sadly, the whole parish may be impacted and most definitely the family and friends of that person will be impacted. It has been rightly said that when a person is incarcerated, their entire family is “incarcerated” with them. The family may suffer shame along with the judgmental looks and actions of other members of the parish.

Some of you readers may have already taken the “ostrich” approach in thinking that this would never happen in my parish. All of the people of my parish are fine upstanding folks who would never be caught up in something that would result in them going to prison. Sadly, if it hasn’t already happened, it is very likely to happen one day in the near future. 

When I was growing up, it was rare that you would actually know someone who was in prison.  Today, the United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world.  Yes, we are number one in that sad category.  In 2018 (the latest statistics available) there were 2.1 million adults incarcerated.  According to the statistics of the World Prison Brief the USA had an incarceration rate of 639 people per 100k population.  The odds have greatly increased that each of you readers likely knows someone who either is or has been in prison.  In case you are wondering about the incarceration rate for some other countries:  Turkey-335; Lebanon-205; Mexico-158; China -121; Greece-108.  That really puts the 639 for the USA in perspective.  You can see all the countries at:  

https://www.prisonstudies.org/highest-to-lowest/prison_population_rate?field_region_taxonomy_tid=All

As it has for many years now, the United States continues to lead the entire world in the incarceration rate of its citizens. If your parish has not been touched by someone being arrested, convicted, and sent to prison, you are in a minority. On the other hand, it may be possible that you just didn’t know that this had occurred. Sometimes the incarceration of someone is kept as a dark little secret even from the priest because of the shame that is perceived. 

Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak at many Orthodox Churches and gatherings around this country, inevitably someone will come up to me afterward and tell me about a loved one in prison.  Far too often it is said with a whisper and a look of shame.  That shame is often nothing more than our own foolish pride.  That “perfect, fine, upstanding” family has a blemish.  Unless every member of your family can walk on water, I would suggest to you that no family is perfect.  What makes the family truly wonderful is an unconditional love for each other.  The key word is unconditional.  We continue to love and support each other no matter what.  

If ever there was a time when a family needs their Church to stand with them, it is in the midst of having a loved one go off to serve a prison sentence.  That family needs to be embraced by their Church and they need to experience the love and support of everyone in their parish. Here’s a scenario that quite possibly could take place in your church: 

John was 20 years old when the judge told him that he would spend the next 5 years in prison as a result of the felony for which he had just been convicted.  From that day forward, John would be labeled a felon.  His life would never be the same and his family thought their life would never be the same. John came from a great family who were all very active in their Orthodox Church.  John had served in the altar until he was 16.  He was a good boy who had made a couple of horrible decisions while away at college. 

The only thing good the family could find in this entire nightmare was that John went to school out of state.  The other members of the Church didn’t know about John’s crime or of his conviction; the family was sworn to secrecy.   Oh, they did tell their priest and he said he would pray for John, but he didn’t think it would do any good to go visit him.  He promised total confidentiality.  After all, this was too shameful for anyone else to know about.  

If members of the parish council found out, the family felt certain the mother would be asked to step down.  If their Church found out, they were sure they would have to quit coming to Divine Liturgy.  If others found out, they would gossip.  After all, what would people think of their family; it was too very shameful to even imagine.  The family would simply say that John was taking some time off school to travel and work abroad.  No shame in that.  This was a secret that the family must maintain; after all, they were such a fine upstanding family.  

So it was that John went off to prison with no one to really help him.  Emotionally and spiritually he was abandoned.  And sadly, his family were now living a lie that would keep them from the love and support they so desperately needed. As all students of psychology know from the very basics of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, every person needs to “belong” and it was no different for John and his family.  

Over my years of being a prison chaplain and in my work with Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry, I can assure you that this is a very real scenario.  This situation or something so very similar happens more often than you can possibly imagine.  Orthodox men and women find themselves in prison and their families end up “incarcerated” with them. Both need to have the church providing them emotional and spiritual support.        

Here are two honest questions to ponder:

-Do you really truly believe that your Church family is going to abandon you if a family member of yours is heading to prison?  

-If it were someone else and you found out, would you abandon them or would you be there to help them?  

A felon in the family should not be the source of shame or the keeping of dark little secrets.  Rather, it should be the opportunity for an outpouring of love from our spiritual brothers and sisters in Christ.  We as Orthodox need to love each other in that same manner as a family should love each other:  Unconditionally.

If someone you love is heading for prison or is already in prison, tell your priest.  Ask him for his spiritual help.  Don’t be afraid to ask others for prayer.  Risk being vulnerable by being open and honest about what has happened. Whereas lies promote gossip, honesty stops gossip in its tracks. Allow your fellow parishioners to have the opportunity to be there for you in this time of need. 

Please do contact Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry.  Your loved one can receive an Orthodox Study Bible, an Orthodox Prayer Book, Icons, correspondence courses, devotional books, newsletters, and they can even begin writing an Orthodox person for spiritual support and guidance.  If at all possible, OCPM will help find an Orthodox priest near that prison to visit your loved one.  Almost every one of the priests we have contacted has been excited and willing to get involved with a ministry to someone in prison.

If you learn of someone in your parish that has a loved one arrested or in prison, be that person who reaches out with that unconditional love. Just the offer of prayer and support can help a family maintain its dignity and may be the very thing they need to continue coming to church each week. Consider writing a note to both the family and the person in prison sharing the love of our Lord and your own love for them. You have an opportunity to follow Christ by seeing Him in them and by being a “little Christ” (Christian) for them. 

May it be blessed.

OCPM CORRESPONDENCE MINISTRY

P.O. Box 277

Rosemount, MN 55068

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Beyond the Bars Blog

“UNBIND HIM AND LET HIM GO!”

By Father Stephen

In chapter 11 of the Gospel of St. John, we find the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead.  There were many people standing there, watching what was taking place.  Jesus “cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.”  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with bandages, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”  Jesus had raised a man 4 days dead in the darkness of a tomb back to life, but He didn’t unbind him.  Instead, He called upon the people to unbind this man.

Many of the men and women coming out of the darkness of prison are very much like Lazarus.  They have committed their whole lives to Christ, having rediscovered (or embraced for the first time) the Orthodox Faith.  While in prison they found the True Faith, but they are coming forth with so very many things binding them up.  They don’t know how to start this new way of life…or to truly belong in a Church…or how to find employment…or how to locate housing…or how to re-establish relationships with family and friends…and the list goes on.   All of these can be fearful things that take great determination and support to accomplish.   As these men and women are returned to life in our society, Christ continues to call the Church to unbind them and help them become all they can be in this life.  This “unbinding” is called reentry.

Preparing the Church community for this reentry from prison begins now, not when a former prisoner walks in the doors or your Church. So many well-meaning Orthodox Christians have taken an ostrich approach to this topic. Here are a few quotes I have heard when I suggested that parishes need to prepare now:

  • Oh come on, what are the odds they would actually come to my Church?
  • Couldn’t they go to some other Church?
  • Could we talk about something else?

According to THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE (https://www.justice.gov/archive/fbci/progmenu_reentry.html): “More than 650,000 ex-offenders are released from prison every year, and studies show that approximately two-thirds will likely be rearrested within three years of release. What can be done to help people who are released from prison keep from being rearrested? With no job, no money, and no place to live, returnees often find themselves facing the same pressures and temptations that landed them in prison in the first place. Assisting ex-prisoners in finding and keeping employment, identifying transitional housing, and receiving mentoring are three key elements of successful re-entry into our communities.

How many of those men and women returning to prison was a result of the absolute rejection they ran into?  Rejected by the people in their communities and unable to find work, their futures begin to look mighty dim.  If the number of Orthodox men and women in prison was only 0.5% of the population (a small estimate), then over 3,000 Orthodox would be coming out into our communities each year.   Some of these men and women will be coming home to their own Church.  Many Orthodox men and women will be paroled to cities other than their home city.  They will seek out the nearest Orthodox Church to become a part of that community.  Others may have embraced Orthodoxy while in prison and are coming to a Church because they fell in love with the True Faith. 

It is not a matter of “if” someone like this will one day come to your Church, but rather it is a matter of “when” someone like this will walk through your doors.  If someone just out of prison were to show up at your Church next Sunday, would your community be ready to love and embrace him or her…to be one of those who unbind him or her?   Now truly is the time for your Church to get educated and prepared.  Please do not be one of those Churches that “just aren’t ready for that kind of person!”  God has a love for those in prison as is evidenced by His words in Matthew 25: “I was in prison and you visited me!”  When one of those precious souls walks out of prison, God’s love for them is still the same and His desire for us to “visit” them has not changed.

Each person coming out of prison is an individual made in the image and likeness of God. Each of them will bring a different set of needs to your parish. Here are a few of the many factors that will impact their reentry into society: What was their crime? How long were they in prison? Do they have a family they are returning to and, if so, how healthy and supportive is that family? What are their job skills? What is their financial condition? Where are they at spiritually?  These are the type of questions that could be asked over coffee when a meeting takes place with that person.

The person’s reentry from prison is not just the work of the clergy. It will truly take a community effort. Now is the time to put together a team of mature Orthodox Christians who are willing to take a mentoring/support role for someone coming out of prison. Having a group of men ready to work with a man coming out of prison and a group of women ready to work with a woman coming out of prison will give that person a much better chance of success. Also, preparing the family of the person ahead of time will add even more to their chances of success. Here is a story that will help put things in perspective:

John was coming home after being away for the past five years.  You might think the family would be planning a great party and feast to celebrate the return of their son.  Instead the family was in turmoil about how to handle his return.  You see John had been branded with a capital “F” on his forehead for he had become a Felon.  This wasn’t a literal “F” but the family knew that everyone would see it.  These past five years of his life had been spent in the deep darkness of prison.  Some of the family wished he were moving to another town so they wouldn’t be embarrassed by him.  Other family members wanted him home, but didn’t know exactly how to handle the situation.

John had made some bad choices while he was away at college and ended up going to prison.  He was always a good boy that had served in the altar until he was 16.  Now at 25 he was coming back to his home and his Church.  When they heard that John was returning, a few well-meaning people came to John’s family wanting to know if John was going to be a danger to the people in the Church.  One man asked them to make sure John didn’t get near any of the girls in their “Singles Group” as he didn’t want them getting involved with his type.  Of course, all of this was said in love.  People were simply afraid because John had become a felon.

The truth of the matter was that John had paid his debt to society and just wanted to start his life over with the people he loved.  He had realized the mistakes he had made and didn’t ever want to go down that path again.  His faith had deepened tremendously and he was ready to be a part of his Church and the community again.  He wanted to get a good job and prove to everyone that he was truly a changed man.  What helped get him through those very long five years were the memories of family, friends, and Church.   When he thought about what kind of life he wanted to live after prison, it was to be back in that community of wonderful people.  He just wanted a normal life again.

When John arrived home, his self-image was about as low as one could get.  When he looked in the mirror, he saw that “F” emblazoned on his forehead and didn’t know how to erase it.  He felt so very ashamed and had a difficult time looking anyone in the eyes.  On his first Sunday back in Church the icy stares of others caused him to look down most of the time.  No one came up to greet or welcome him during coffee hour.  He left feeling that “F” shining even brighter.  He made an appointment with his priest.  His priest told him that he would pray for him, but that he wasn’t sure the Church was ready for a man like him.  He was sure that John would understand.

John tried to find a good job but every interview ended at the same point when he told them that he had just gotten out of prison.  He so desperately needed someone to vouch for him, but no one would step forward.  He finally found a job washing dishes.  He was determined to be a success, but didn’t know how to even begin.  Without any support from his friends or Church, John’s future was looking mighty dim.  This scenario is being played out over and over again across this country of ours.  Orthodox men and women are coming out of the darkness of prison, wanting to succeed in life, only to find rejection from the very people they knew and sadly from their Church community.   Most people on the outside of prison only know what television or the movies have portrayed it to be.  When someone comes to their Church or community, the immediate reaction is one of fear.  Instead of finding the help and support they so desperately need, they find rejection.

Now is the time to make sure your parish is not going to be that kind of welcoming committee. The clergy and the people need to be prepared to help “unbind” a person the minute he or she comes to your parish from prison. Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry is here to assist you and your parish in your ministry to someone coming out of prison.  To learn more about the ministry of OCPM please visit:  http://theocpm.org

ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN PRISON MINISTRY

Post Office Box 1597

New York, NY 10025

(347)868-6957

OCPM CORRESPONDENCE MINISTRY

P.O. Box 277

Rosemount, MN 55068

Other Resources:

Reentry Services in Each State

Reentry Partnerships: A Guide for States & Faith-Based and Community Organizations

https://www.justice.gov/archive/fbci/docs/reentry-partnership.pdf

https://www.prisonfellowship.org/

National Reentry Resource Center

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Beyond the Bars Blog

Hot Time, Summer in the Prison

Someone in prison once wrote to this ministry and mentioned he was reading Dante’s Inferno.  He suggested that perhaps Dante got the inspiration for his book after spending a summer inside a prison.  There is a prison in Texas which some people serving time there call The Glass House because the exterior walls are nothing but six-inches by six-inches squares of glass mounted in a steel grid.  One wing of the prison faces due west and so in the afternoon anyone on that wing will do nothing but roast in the sun beaming through the glass . . . and no air conditioning either.  For most prisons, especially the older structures, there is only one word to describe summers there: HOT!  Not only do you get all sweaty and uncomfortable, everyone else around you is sweating as well.  If you remember what a gym locker room smelled like when you were in school, multiply that by about a thousand and you will be close to the smell inside a prison in the summertime.  Besides the odor, everyone’s tempers flare as well, both inmates and guards; needless to say, summer in prison is an especially rough place to be.  So, how does one survive such a hot setting?            

One thing to learn about people in prison is to never underestimate their ingenuity.  For example, one way to help beat the heat is to sit in front of a fan (if you are blessed to have family or a friend who will send you money to be able to buy one).  Furthermore, it is better to sit in front of the fan wearing a wet t-shirt.  As the fan evaporates the water from the shirt, heat from your body will be carried away as well.  Although it is available to far fewer people in prison, it is great to have a job in an air-conditioned area of the prison or perhaps work in the meat cooler in the food service department.  However, for far too many people in prison there is no alternative but to sit there and sweat.  For older inmates (a large portion of our prison population today due to tough on crime laws passed decades ago), summertime can be a season which turns a limited sentence into a life sentence.  Likely you have heard about how the elderly suffer and sometimes die during the heat of summer in our bigger cities.  Just think what it is like for someone in prison who can’t even go outside when it gets too hot inside.  If there is one thing I have learned in my many years of involvement with people in prison, it is that there is no need to tell them about hell, they are already living in it.  So, this summer, in the letters we regularly send to those who write to us, we try to share a little humor and a little of God’s love to help relieve their suffering. 

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Beyond the Bars Blog

Orthodox Catechesis for People in Prison

Before offering some thoughts on how OCPM conducts catechesis for people in prison I would like to take the opportunity to recognize those Orthodox clergy and laity who work tirelessly where they are able to help our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. Despite their sacrifices there is still a difficulty which must be faced: the largest numbers of Orthodox Christians in parts of the United States where people in prison tend to be the fewest while those places with the largest numbers of people incarcerated tend to be in places where Orthodox Christians are fewest in numbers. It is out of these latter areas that OCPM receives the greatest number of inquiries about Orthodox Christianity. Many of these people are either requesting to be catechized or will end up asking to be taught the faith. How do we as OCPM respond to these requests for teaching? 

Primarily, catechesis is done by OCPM through a series of studies and personal correspondence. The personal correspondence allows for answering specific questions by the student which needs a fuller explanation than our materials offer. Besides this personal correspondence we offer a 6-part study series of which the first 4 studies contain questions to help guide the student through the material. The six-part series is as follows: 

Part 1: A Seeker of Truth, Saint Hilary of Poitiers 

Part 2: The Preaching of the Apostles, Saint Irenaeus 

Part 3: Orthodox Christian Catechism 

Part 4: A Treatise to Prove That No One Can Harm the Man Who Does Not Injure      Himself 

Part 5: Orthodox Faith (4 vol. set)

Part 6: Challenges of Orthodox Thought  and Life  

Part 1 is a basic introduction to Trinitarian theology done through a study of the journey of St. Hilary of Poitiers (4th century) to Orthodox Christianity. Part 2 is a study of the 2nd century writing by St. Irenaeus, The Preaching of the Apostles, which is just what the name states: a presentation of the content of the Christian Faith handed down from the Apostles. Part 3 is an actual Orthodox Catechism which includes a study guide to help the student better understand the Catechism material. Each of these first three courses contain the answer key for the lessons in the back of the study guide so the student can grade their own work. 

First, it is a somewhat novel experience for someone in prison to be trusted to do the right thing; however, this approach minimizes postage cost for the student as well as simplifying the process. Part 4 is a treatise by St. John Chrysostom which serves a two-fold purpose: to help the student begin applying the Faith in their own life as well as teaching the student how to stop being a victim and take control of their own life. Part 5 is “the Rainbow Set” done by Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory and provides a fuller description of the history, worship, and spirituality of Orthodox Christianity. Part 6 rounds out the studies by showing the student some of the challenges they will likely face as an Orthodox Christian. 

For those people who are in a prison or jail where there are no Orthodox services or classes being offered by an Orthodox priest or volunteer, they can write to OCPM and we can provide them with our free study courses as well as the guidance we offer through corresponding with them. 

Many ask us about the impact this sort of spiritual support by correspondence can have on people who participate. Perhaps the best repsonse to this question is to offer (anonymously) the content of a recent letter to OCPM:

When I first started my Christian walk, I was searching for faith, any faith. I thought I could wrestle my own understanding from the Bible through numerous, mostly Protestant, Bible studies, on my own. Until I found Orthodoxy, I was on a holy quest, but I was under my own sinful power and authority. I was trying to discover the holy and divine message of the Bible without the Church and community that received the Bible through the Holy Spirit. Thank you for helping me to find the true Church. When I parole in 2021, I will find an Orthodox parish church to continue my Christian journey. I have finally found what I have been searching for my entire life. Thank you so very much. 

This fellow has gone through our 6-part study series while regularly corresponding with OCPM all of which helped bring him to this point in his life. 

While face to face contact is a necessity at some point in their journey home, correspondence can help them a good distance down the road. Consider the New Testament as an example of the effectiveness of correspondence: virtually all of the writings are letters of a sort to a particular person or church. The Gospel of Luke was written as a form of catechesis for Theophilus (Luke 1:3, 4) . . . “it seemed fitting for me as well having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught [Gk. κατηχήθης]. Even correspondence ministry has an integral place in the teaching ministry of the Church in helping to guide people home to the Kingdom of God. 

By Zossima Daugherty 

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Beyond the Bars Blog

Prison Reform and Protests

Confronting the evil of social injustice must be predicated on the understanding that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12). Social injustice is a failure to see Christ in our neighbor. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr said, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Everywhere especially applies to prison.

Uprooting the weed of injustice in prisons is a process that is not instantaneous. It requires the tools of forgiveness, reconciliation and creative restoration using one’s time, treasure and talent. St Paul counseled Timothy that “all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution”. (2Timothy 3:12). Breaking the roots of injustice requires suffering on both sides for righteousness sake. Nevertheless the outcome is unspeakable joy and blossoming friendships. We are all flowers in God’s garden.

To uproot social injustice in prison, one must first ask God for strength and direction. Then fast according to your ability. Then begin to reach out through random acts of kindness, unceasing prayer, and patient forgiveness. Love goes from heart to heart and strength to strength, regardless of melanin. Lastly, Isaiah 43:1 says, “But now thus saith the Lord that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”

-Dr. Carla Thomas, Member of the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry Board of Trustees

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Beyond the Bars Blog

“Bring my soul out of prison that I may give thanks to Your Name.”

by Fr. John Brown

These words are familiar to most Orthodox Christians. They come from Psalm 142, are chanted at every Great Vespers, and they can teach those of us with a heart for inmates and prison ministry.

The psalmist is describing his own experience of prison. It may have been an actual, physical prison, or it may have been an emotional, spiritual prison. The latter can be just as painful as the former. Every person, including Orthodox Christians, has experienced what John of the Cross called, “The dark night of the soul.” In such times, a person feels the darkness, the fear, and above all, the intense loneliness of life in prison, even if that person is not actually living behind bars.

Volunteers who enter prison can fall into this category. As they drive into the parking lot of a correctional facility, to lead a service, or teach a class, or counsel an inmate, they are often feeling the burdens of life just like everybody else. They ask themselves, “Am I going to lose my job over this coronavirus? My father is in a nursing home and I can’t visit him. Is he okay? I really don’t like the guy my daughter is dating.” Some prison volunteers’ bodies may be free, but when they enter the facility, go through security, pick up their badges, and walk with their escorts towards the Chapel, they are carrying their own personal prison inside them. In such a situation, that’s a good time to pray, “Bring my soul out of prison that I may give thanks to Your Name,” as a request.

But then they enter the Chapel, and meet with their usual inmates for the usual service, class, or counseling session. There, they encounter a special inmate. He is serving an extremely long sentence. Some of his loved ones have died, and he was unable to attend the funeral. The inmate may even be in the Special Housing Unit, and therefore only leaves his cell to exercise and see the sky one hour a day. But despite his dark situation, that inmate is always smiling. He addresses the volunteer with kindness and gentleness, without the profanity or bravado the way most inmates talk. He eagerly receives the Word of God from the volunteer with a completely receptive heart. Instead of complaining, he talks about how God is blessing him, even in his stark surroundings.

Such an inmate is the opposite of the weary volunteer, whose body is free but whose spirit is in prison. Such an inmate’s body is in prison, but his soul is free, at peace, resting in God, routinely rejoicing in His divine companionship. That inmate could say, “Bring my soul out of prison that I may give thanks to Your Name” more as a present experience than a request. Often, when the weary volunteer and the deified inmate meet, a beautiful thing happens: The weary volunteer leaves the facility with their prayer “Bring my soul out of prison that I may give thanks to Your Name,” requested while entering, now answered while leaving.

Many of us went into prison ministry to be used by God to save the souls of inmates. But over time, we have learned that God has used the example of faithful inmates to save us.

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Beyond the Bars Blog

Christ is Risen! A Bright Week Message from Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

Enter all of you, therefore, into the joy of our Lord,
and, whether first or last, receive your reward.
O rich and poor, one with another, dance for joy
O you ascetics and you negligent, celebrate the day!
Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Resurrection of our Lord means death is conquered!

Throughout this Bright Week we celebrate, rejoice, and exalt our Lord for His sacrifice and ultimate victory over darkness and death. Like many of us who were physically removed from our church communities this Pascha, those in prison also celebrated the Lord’s Resurrection in their hearts. They were also able to share a very small amount of communal celebration through a special Paschal message from OCPM in the mail.

This week we also reflect on the lessons we learned during Holy Week – for instance, that true repentance from the heart, as we saw from the Good Thief, means Christ will remember you when deciding who will enter His Father’s Heavenly Kingdom.

While we cannot enter the prisons and jails right now, we are still able to reach the prison population through our David C. Patton Correspondence Ministry program. For most, this will be their only hint of the Paschal season from the outside. Thank you for remembering and praying for them and we wish you all a Joyous Feast from everyone at OCPM.

Truly He is Risen!

 

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