Like all pastors, one staple of my daily routine is to go through any mail I might have received. It was a few years ago and I was not but a few months into ministry here in Wartburg, that I received a letter from the local prison. I thought it was a mistake and that I would have to return it to the post office, but indeed it was for me. The inmate who wrote to me said that he had not had a pastoral visit in years; and that he heard there was a new pastor at the local Lutheran congregation. His only request was for the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Who was I to say no?
Of course that is what I—and all of us—are called to do: to distribute the sacrament to God’s children, even those children in prison. What began as an individual visit with one inmate became a larger service of up to forty or fifty men. As my relationship with the prison chaplain grew, so did my involvement in the Morgan County prison. It was not something that I envisioned being part of my ministry, but has become a vital piece of what the Lord called me to do here in East Tennessee.
It would take a very long and involved article to go over every step taken to get to where I am today: holding a monthly service for inmates and also serving on the prison’s community outreach board. Yet, I would like to stress that this ministry is one part of my regular parish ministry and does not take a great deal of extra time on my part. I would encourage other Lutheran pastors to take similar steps toward reaching those in prison and consider why it is so important.
At a recent prison ministry conference in Belleville, Illinois, I was proud to be part of a group that represented twenty of our LCMS districts that want to encourage more pastors to be interested in prison ministry. What I would like to encourage others with are just a couple of points chaplains and pastors made at the conference.
First, despite the numerous—and there are indeed numerous—passages on visiting those in prison (Isaiah 61:1, Matt. 25:36, Acts 16:26-34, Heb. 10:34, Heb. 13:13, etc.), the main reason we go to prisons is to follow the Great Commission. There are God’s scattered children in prisons in need of what He offers and what we have to proclaim. This includes preaching the Gospel and feeding them with the sacrament; in addition to ministering the many other souls lost in our prison system.
In each of our communities, we are called to preach the Gospel to these brothers and sisters as much as we are to those who are free. It was said at the conference that prison wardens and chaplains appreciate the presence of LCMS pastors and laity because they bring a sense of stability with them in their preaching and pastoral leadership. Each of us has been given gifts to be pastors. Those same gifts are given when we would visit those in prison. It does not take a radically different skill set to do prison ministry; it is ministry very similar to what we are doing right now!
A second point I would also like to encourage other pastors with is help needed with advocacy and indirect support. It was mentioned at the conference that there is a measure before the Synodical convention this summer that would request a full time prison ministry coordinator for Synod. Please speak to your circuit representative for the upcoming convention and ask them to support this important measure put forth by the Southern Illinois District.
Another way we all can support prison ministry (if someone is unable to go to a jail or prison directly) is to find out what inmates need in terms of personal hygiene items. These items are always in constant need, and a drive to collect and send those items would be of great value. Contact the chaplain at your local institution to find out which items are needed most.
Each prison ministry is different. Different institutions have different rules and regulations, and the population is of course always different and ever-changing. It takes just a few steps to be involved and to begin a prison ministry, but the hard part is up to the local pastor to make the effort to visit those for whom our Lord also died. It is not always an easy part of ministry, but it is a rewarding and exciting one.
If nothing else, please take the words of the writer to the Hebrews seriously and pray for those in prison, pray in worship, and pray individually, for each of these children whom our Lord loves needs those prayers and constantly ask for them. “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” (Hebrews 13:3)
For more information about getting involved in prison ministry please contact Rev. David Graves at 423-346-3554 or email him.