Contents: UU World Back Issue

Ministry Behind Bars

By Warren R. Ross

The statement on criminal justice and prison reform that the UUA's Commission on Social Witness will present for a vote at this year's General Assembly is intended to mobilize our denomination's commitment to healing an aching wound in our society. But many Unitarian Universalist individuals and congregations began to address problems in the U.S. criminal justice system long before the issue arrived on the agenda of GA.

For example, the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our "church at home anywhere in the world," actively supports more than 100 incarcerated CLF members. The church's mission is to provide a spiritual home for Unitarian Universalists who are isolated from congregations, and no one is more isolated than those in prison. The link that attempts to break through this isolation is the church's pen pal program, which connects "free world" members with those in prison.

"It's an economical and personal way to increase understanding between UUs on both sides of the prison wall," says the Rev. Dr. Jane Rzepka, CLF's senior minister. "It's a way to put a human face on the entire criminal justice issue. It has been quite transformative for both pen pal volunteers as well as for some of the prisoners."

The program, which was started in 2000 by the Rev. Katherine Reis, then a ministerial intern, also serves as a model for other UU congregations looking to engage in this work. Reis has since become CLF's prison ministry director, while also serving the Unitarian Universalist Society of Rockport, Massachusetts.

Reis's interest in prison work goes back to theological school. While she was studying at Starr King School for the Ministry, she took a field trip to the Santa Clara County jail. She recalls it as "one of those experiences that never leaves you alone for the rest of your life." Seeing the conditions and the attitudes of the guards up close, Reis was struck by what a terrible experience it is to be incarcerated-and this was just a county jail, not a maximum security prison. "I had dreams about prisons for weeks and months after that," she says.

Meanwhile Rzepka had begun to correspond with CLF's imprisoned members. She felt overwhelmed by the number of letters that needed replies, so when Reis turned up, "Jane dumped this stack of letters on my desk and asked me to answer them," Reis said. Pretty soon the task overwhelmed Reis, too, so she began to research how prisoner pen pal programs work. After getting in touch with Buddhist fellowships and Quaker meetings that served as models, Reis recalls, "we put together some guidelines and pretty soon we had a pen pal program going."

As of the end of 2004, seventy-four prison members had been matched with pen pals, and an almost equal number were on the waiting list. For a minimum of six months, pen pals commit to make every effort to reply to prisoners' letters in a timely manner. Pen pals also agree to use discretion in revealing personal information and maintaining appropriate boundaries. To protect the volunteers' privacy, mail from prisoners is forwarded by the CLF office.

For its first three years, the UU Funding Panel has provided financial support for the prison ministry. Those funds will soon end, however. Says Rzepka, "The CLF must raise money in order to continue the program."

A message of hope. Only a few of the imprisoned CLF members were Unitarian Universalists before they were sentenced. Most of them, according to Reis, heard about our faith through word of mouth and through UUA pamphlets and other publications in prison libraries. Our message, she feels, is particularly pertinent to prisoners. "These are people who are in this dark, oppressive, hopeless kind of place, just a horrible place," she says. "The hopefulness of the message that we bring to them, the 'inherent worth and dignity of every person,' is absolutely new and revelatory to a lot of them. It allows them to feel that they are part of the world out there."

Despair just leaps off the pages of their letters, Reis says. "Were it not for our pen pals, were it not for our chaplain, there would be even more despair. We are able to bring them the message of Unitarian Universalism, and I'm told over and over again that it really makes a difference. I just read a letter that said: 'This is a dark, sad vacuum that sucks all of the humanity from people. The openness and acceptance I've received from every UU I've ever heard from has been so wonderful.'" Here are a few other excerpts from prisoners' letters:

  • "I am writing you this letter expressing my humble gratitude . . . for matching me with my pen pal. I do thank you and your staff for putting happiness and friendship into my life." Larry in Oregon .
  • "UUism has provided a sense of community in the face of difficult times. I've taken shelter in the CLF when being bombarded with Christian materials that don't conform to my liberal spiritual paradigm." B.R. in Washington.
  • "When I was incarcerated, I was already in the grip of a serious spiritual crisis. The traditions I was raised in had failed me. . . . The Unitarian Universalist Association has given me a sense of belonging and 'permission' to develop my spirituality in accordance with my own values and experiences." D.D. in Ohio .
  • "I find UUism a very accepting and welcoming faith, something I had been searching for a very long time. Being a gay man, many other belief systems consider me a 'sinner' and do not welcome me as I am in their churches. I believe God loves me and accepts me for who I am, and I feel that the UU church does the same." C.R. in Rhode Island.

The free-world pen pals learn from the program, too. Many have mentioned that their participation has given them insight into how huge the prison problem is. As Reis says, "I was challenged, educated, and moved by the people I got to know through their letters. They revealed themselves in all their three-dimensional complexity, and I was changed by them." The prison pen pal program, she believes, is a transformative experience for anyone who signs up.

A special kind of ministry. The Rev. Patricia Franz is a CLF prison chaplain living in California. She explains her work this way:

"Every once in a while a prisoner's letter suggests that someone needs more careful attention than a pen pal can give. Kathy [Reis] forwards such letters to me. Sometimes prisoners write to me on their own. Currently I'm writing to around ten."

"As a chaplain, I'm available to work with someone through a period of crisis or transition, such as the death of a family member or upcoming release," she says. "To make it more personal, I usually send a handwritten reply. It's fun, and as a journal writer I know that the feeling behind what you write can show up in an exclamation point. Also, many prisoners don't have anything available other than handwriting, so it keeps us on a par."

That is the kind of sensitivity that makes her chaplaincy so effective. Franz keeps the letters she has already answered, so she can track how the prisoners' concerns are changing. This helps her to make her replies more conversational and to ask questions or suggest things they might want to write about. Franz maintains her correspondence with a prisoner for up to a year after the prisoner's release, offering support through the critical months of transition. Sometimes she writes to a UU minister in the area when a prisoner is released asking whether someone in the congregation is familiar with local social services or willing to help the released prisoner through this difficult adjustment.

Help with this transition is crucial. "Unfortunately," says Franz, "the trend in our society is to have fewer and fewer support services for people being discharged or paroled. In some cases, ex-prisoners are even disqualified from social services because of their criminal record, which is the least helpful way to prevent recidivism. It's part of the trend away from rehabilitation to a more punitive attitude, one of longer sentences and not 'coddling' prisoners."

Part of the explanation, Franz says, is that a lot of people make a lot of money out of keeping people locked up. As Brent Staples wrote in a New York Times op-ed, "The business of building and running the jailhouse has become a mammoth industry." Franz says her work requires her to fight powerful lobbies that favor the prison business status quo. The pen pal program, Franz says, is designed "to let prisoners know that there are people in the outside world who care about them, who believe that they can still make the choice to lead hopeful, positive, contributing lives, and who will support them in these choices." And for the UUs who sign up as pen pals, Franz says the program is "a concrete embodiment of our sense of hopefulness about human nature and the possibility for people to make constructive choices in spite of difficult circumstances."

Franz once summed up her personal motivation in a sermon at the Mt. Diablo Unitarian Universalist Church in Walnut Creek, California, while working as a chaplain intern at two high-security county jails. "I go to jail," she said, "because it's an amazing place to live out our UU values and principles. There is a powerful force in this universe that is on the side of life, and I strive, in my ministry, to embody this amazing spirit of life and love. Each day that I show up in jail, I am a living witness to our faith's absolute bedrock belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every person, and our commitment to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations."

Spreading the word. Other UUs, ministers, and congregations are also active in infusing more justice into the criminal "justice" system. Virtually everyone interviewed for this article suggested others who should be included, but a couple of examples will have to do.

The Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, adopted "Helping Women in Prison and Their Families" as an all-church social action project in 2001 and has sponsored multiple programs to implement it. On successive Sunday mornings, Elizabeth Nichols, deputy warden of Dauphin County Prison, has helped the congregation gain a better understanding of how women in prison are treated and how groups and individuals can help them. One result is a monthly class, taught by church members, about time- and paper-management, which prepares women for the job market. More than 200 women in the past two years have attended the program. Toward the same end, church members relay job leads and run a "Working Clothes/Working Women" clothing bank.

The Restorative Justice Team at Unity Church- Unitarian of St. Paul, Minnesota, mentors inmates and ex-offenders, supports those about to leave prison, and teaches classes in prison that encourage spiritual reflection. Co-led by Jamie Seeley Kreisman and Maura Williams, the team also partners with a local mentoring organization called Amicus and spreads the word through training workshops, community forums, and breakout sessions at UU district conferences.

One team member is the Rev. Ann Romanczuk who, having been ordained at Unity Church, now works as a full-time prison chaplain.

Chaplains, Romanczuk explains, encounter a wide diversity of beliefs. In the Minnesota Correctional Facility for Women in Shakopee, for instance, there are members not only of various Christian denominations, but also followers of Native American faiths, Muslims, and Wiccans. Chaplains with a strong sense of their own religions, she says, almost have to put their faith aside to be able to do their work. UUs, on the other hand, "are ideally suited to be chaplains because diversity of belief is at the very heart, the very center of our tradition."

She finds that traditional Christianity, at times, can be helpful to prisoners by providing firm guidelines for women who often have led wildly chaotic lives, while UUism can seem too abstract. "I have sat with women who have killed their children, along with women who just forged a few checks. What I can bring to them is a sense of a loving God who thinks that they have the capacity to do good." Of course, what she brings to prisoners who are inclined to be religious liberals is even more supportive, for these are people who at times encounter great hostility from conservative Christian pastors. One CLF correspondent was called a "heathen" and a "pagan"; another who identified himself as a UU was told that Channing, Emerson, and Thoreau were "noted gays and child molesters."

Because Romanczuk does not try to impose firm rules or creeds, she says, prisoners "see me as being open to them no matter what their beliefs and convictions." Above all, she adds, "I can be present to them, listen to them, and let them know through the human encounter with me that they are loved."

Romanczuk succeeded another UU chaplain at the Shakopee facility: The Rev. Emily Brault, who is now at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon. In Oregon, as she did in Minnesota, Brault plans to teach a class using the UUA's Building Your Own Theology curriculum. "It offers a great opportunity for women to explore and articulate what they believe," she explains, "and whether they're Christian or Wicca or atheist, it gives them an opportunity to do some values clarification . . . to explore what it means to be human and whether there is a God."

Both Brault and the Unity Church Restorative Justice Team are adapting the curriculum to make it more accessible to people with less education than its intended audience of free-world UUs. Brault says she hopes the adaptation can be made available to help more UU congregations engage in prison work. Religious activity, she points out, is one of the few places where prisoners can meet and interact with volunteers from the outside, "and they can do it in a safe place where people aren't telling them what they're supposed to believe. The primary religious language in prison is evangelical Christianity."

Brault also preaches at UU congregations, including her home church, Atkinson Memorial Church in Oregon City. At these services, she likes to choose hymn number 346 from the UUA hymnal, "Come Sing a Song with Me." "Come sing a song with me, that I might know your mind," to her reflects "a certain prophetic nature . . . that runs counter to what Unitarian Universalism is too often all about. We need to balance our emphasis on social justice, important as that is, with knowing people-not changing them or fixing them-for it is when we listen to other people that we are transformed and our vision of the world is made bigger and more powerful. In my experience, that's how change takes place."

While the song's author, Carolyn McDade, did not write it with prisoners in mind, she realized its appropriateness when she was asked to accompany a chaplain to sing with incarcerated women. She took this hymn along with her thinking it might be easy to teach. The women claimed it as their own and showed McDade a deeper meaning than she had originally recognized. Perhaps after the GA floor debate about the Statement of Conscience the delegates will also be moved to sing: "Come sing a song with me, that I might know your mind."

 Contents: UU World Back Issue
UU World : Page 34-38

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