This blog entry is from George Bowden, long time friend and former board member of PCA:
I find it fascinating that sometimes you can change a Bible story and still get a divine message from the same story.
On Easter evening the disciples were gathered behind closed (locked) doors, for fear of the Jews, and Jesus came among them and said: “Peace be with you.”:
The prisoners in our PCA congregations are behind closed doors, not because of their fear, but because people on the outside fear them because of the crimes they have committed. Jesus still comes behind closed doors to say: “Peace be with you”. In the name of Jesus Christ, this has to be our message.
South Dakota is in the midst of a terrible ice storm, and when I saw a robin trying to find food through the several inch ice cover, I thought of this essay I wrote several years ago:
Robin Sings the Blues
By Mary Mortenson
The month started out warm – 50 degrees – balmy for these parts! We saw him one morning while we were walking the dogs. He was sitting in a tree, singing his beautiful spring song. He was proud, I think, that he had made it back so much before the others. It is his privilege to find the choicest nesting spot for his mate when she comes. We welcomed him and his message of season’s change.
And then in a couple of days the temperature plummeted to ten degrees. Wind and snow obliterated our spring fever. I thought of that robin, and I imagined that that particular morning, he was no longer so proud of himself for winning the race. He remembered his mate imploring him to wait awhile until he was sure it would be safe. This morning, he sings the blues. He is in his current situation because of his own choices and other things beyond his control... and so there is nothing else to do, but to sing the blues, because he must sing.
He reminds me of us – me, anyway. There are times when I am flying high, quite smug about my ability to arrange my life so that good things happen. Often that works and my song is strong and, I am ashamed to say, a little bit cocky. But then, just when I believe all the world is mine, something happens. It becomes apparent that I wasn’t so smart after all, or maybe there is something beyond my control – some freak of nature that messes up all my plans. When this happens, I can again choose my course. I can be angry and sad and even ashamed, or like my friend the robin, I can sing the blues and wait for the sun to shine again, because as creatures of God, we simply must sing...
March 26, 2013
In the past year, I have had three occasions to visit the church in which I grew up. Each visit invariably brought me back to the kitchen, where I knew I would find some of the beautiful, strong and faithful women who helped to raise me in the faith. It was here that I learned about service and serving, and thus precious Easter memories. I grew up on a farm, and somehow, on Easter morning, my parents would have the cows milked and us ready so we could be at church well before the sunrise service started, because the youth usually served the breakfast after the service, and there was kitchen work to do. Among the most memorable of the duties, completed those holy mornings and countless other times, was making egg coffee. (To our younger friends - in the early days of Christianity there was no cappuccino.) The coffee was made in big white porcelain pots and I guess, the egg helped to settle the coffee grounds. Under the watchful gaze of my mothers in the faith, I learned this skill.
Here is the Easter gift, planted those many years ago, in the darkness of early Easter mornings, with the smell of coffee in the air: Jesus died, Jesus rose, and together - together, we celebrate, for in this congregation you are among family. We will teach you. We will discipline you. We will rejoice in you. We will love you, and we will never forget you. I think everyone should be able to hear such a message, and that is precisely why I love the PCA model of prison ministry. We aren’t “bringing God” into prison. God is already there. We are creating safe and healthy environments in which God’s children can learn and grow and love and serve.
The PCA volunteers, board of directors and I pray that on this holy Easter morning, you are touched by those you love, even as our risen Savior loves you.
“Jesus Loves You and So Do I”
March 5, 2013
I thought I would share a love story with you. Jack and I declare our love for one another multiple times a day, and I often close telephone or e-mail conversations with friends and family with “I love you.” But there was a time last summer when those words held a power that surprised me. I had the opportunity as I do sometimes to preach at a prison congregation worship service. At the end of my remarks, meeting as many pairs of eyes as I could, I said, “Jesus loves you, and so do I.” After the service, a man came up to me, and through tear-filled eyes said, “No one has ever told me they loved me.” Coming from my background, I find it inconceivable that someone would reach adulthood without hearing those words that sometimes we take for granted, “I love you.” After that experience I decided that I would close other remarks with the same blessing, “Jesus loves you and so do I.” If you ever hear that come out of my mouth, please know that it is true. Our great God has given us such a model of love, that we dare not spend time among God’s children and not share that love - for perhaps among them is someone for whom the words are brand new. In this work, love splashes all over the place - it splashes inmates and prison staff and pastors and visitors and churches on the outside and mission recipients. What a great gig!
“Who Loves Ya, Baby?”
February 11, 2013
Do you remember Kojak? He was that tough detective in the TV series that aired in the 1970s, whose famous line was, “Who loves ya, baby?” Recently as I was doing some Bible study, I thought of Kojak.
Jeremiah 4:1-10 contains that beautiful verse, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you,” and ends with “I have put my words in your mouth...” I have the privilege of working with people who, when they dare to believe such a truth - that God has always loved them and that God equips them for holy work - find joy and belonging. This is as true for the pastors as it is for the prison congregations they serve. It was 2002 when Pr. Ed Nesselhuf spoke to a class at Wartburg Seminary, at which he encouraged the students to consider prison ministry. One of the seminarians was touched by the thought, but life took him in other directions. In 2012, this man, Rev. Rob Nedbalek, was installed, first at his synod assembly, and then several months later, in front of his new congregation, as the first pastor of Freedom in Christ in the Montana State Prison. Leading the installation service that night - Ed Nesselhuf. It was a moment both men had waited 10 years to experience. Who loves ya, baby? I think both Ed and Rob would say, “God loves me, and answers the prayers of my heart in holy God-time.”
Luke 4:21-30 tells the story of a local boy who gains some fame and comes home. At first Jesus’ hometown crowd claims him - adores him, even. But when Jesus starts to tell them some hard truths, the adoration quickly turns to derision and violence. Human love can be fickle like that. Recently there was a terrible fire in Sioux Falls, SD in which three children died. The shared grief and outpouring of kindness to the devastated parents were remarkable. Then it was announced that the mother tested positive for drugs, and some in the community tried to withdraw their care, as if the fact that the mother was a drug user made it somehow OK or her fault that her children died, or that she couldn’t or shouldn’t be grieving. Yes, human love can be fickle. In this work, I have met so many - on both sides of the razor wire - who have been hurt in the name of human love. Early last year, Jack and I got to worship with New Life Prison Community in Newton, IA, where a number of newly baptized men shared their powerful testimonies. A young man came to the front of the room, took the mic, and said, “I’ve heard all these testimonies and this is the first time I’ve come here, but I want you to know that I’m not sure. I’m not sure that God loves me or that I love God.” Before this young man could reach his seat, his brothers in Christ were reassuring him that it was OK – that they were there for him, and that they would carry him until his own faith was ready to do so. Who loves ya, baby? This young man might say, “My brothers love me, and perhaps one day, I will know that God does, too.”
Finally, there is 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 – The Love Chapter. In this beautiful passage Paul speaks of love, and promises, that - as beautiful as love is now - there is so much more to come. It made me think of the story Pastor Emily Cardin shared about Christmas Eve at New Beginnings in Denver, CO. The gymnasium had been transformed into a holy place, complete with candles, an advent wreath, and a manger scene. The Christmas Eve service had been moved from the chapel to the gym to accommodate the nearly 250 women who attended. During the service 12 women were baptized. One of the women received a standing ovation when her name was called. Recounts Pastor Emily, “It was a true miracle for her to claim Jesus as her Lord and Savior after a very visible life of following the darkness.” Who loves ya, baby? The women of New Beginnings would answer - “Jesus!”
These reflections and stories have some things in common. God is at the center of all. Life with God is a continuum. Love is experienced in community - in congregation.
And that is what PCA is all about! We seek to build healthy communities of faith where all are free to affirm and question, laugh and cry, argue and agree - all in a spirit of love.
Who loves ya, baby?
When We Get Our Hands Dirty
I love to garden, even though I am not particularly talented in that area. We have a little strawberry garden in which some volunteer lettuce has joined the strawberries, and Jack has built several flower gardens which bloom with a variety of color and texture, although they are not Better Homes and Gardens material. Still, there is something about working in a garden, getting my hands and knees dirty, that brings me joy.
I think as Christians, we are a “get your hands dirty” kind of people. I think that we are willing to get on our knees among God’s creation and risk getting dirty and tired so that we can be the hands of God. We do this work in our day to day walk as we make eye contact and share greetings with a homeless person, and it comes in community as we work together on a hunger walk or as we stand with the disenfranchised in protest. I no longer believe that when we do this, we are simply “serving the least of these” because at some time or another we are the least, and so the blessings go in multiple directions with a constant flow of touch and go grace.
This is as true in prison as it is out of prison. The PCA model of prison ministry creates an environment in which inmate members can see that they are part of a larger whole, called to get down on their knees and get their hands dirty sometimes, because the others inside need them, and the church on the outside needs them, and we are all better for the effort.
It's been much too long since I've posted anything here, but you'll find the following two pieces worth the wait. First is the complete transcript of the speech Christie Sprinkle gave at this year's Partners at the Cross Banquet. The next entry is a story about how our newest congregation, St. Francis os Assisi Christian Church came to be.
Higher on God...
By Christie Sprinkle
Oct 1, 2011
I want to thank Prison Congregations for welcoming me to be a part of such a wonderful event. This is truly a privilege and honor and I’m lucky to be able to share my story with all you folks.
Prior to February 1 of 2006 I was considered a Queenpin. My life was extreme and very dangerous. I sold a lotta drugs, I did a lotta drugs, and I made a whole lot of money. I did this for about 30 years. I had a serious addiction to money, drugs, power, and control.
This time I was in deep, the demand for my drugs was enormous. You’d think that somebody would be happy with all this power, control, and money. I was miserable and I knew there was no way out.
Two days before February first, I had asked, “God, please, please God. Remove all evil and harm from my life.” It was almost instanteously I got pulled over by the police. I told the officer, “Thank you. Thank you very much.” He says, “Sprinkle, you’re gonna do the rest of your life in prison.” I said, “All I know is I don’t have to deal drugs no more, or do them ever again.”
This was my fourth time going to prison. What he said to me didn’t mean much to me at the time, but after about a week of sobering up, I thought, “Jeeze, I’m in trouble. I’m in serious trouble.” The state of Colorado told me if I ever got pulled over again I would do the rest of my life. So it was kinda sinkin’ in. I get sentenced to a prior case of 8 years in the Department of Corrections, with a seventh conviction of drug distribution hanging over my head. I arrived to prison absolutely broken. I have all types of feelings and emotions. I feel abandoned, scared, alone, hurt, sad, pained, betrayed. It was bad. What do I do now? How do I spend my time for the rest of my life?
All the inmates knew me. They knew who I was, they knew what my master was. On the street I was a legend. In prison I was just another body. I have always had the attitude that “I don’t care what you have to say to me. It didn’t matter, it was ‘my way or no way’”. Boy did I miss out on a lot in life. All I cared about was getting high and making money. I had serious issues and behaviors. I had made a decision to take advantage of what the State of Colorado had to offer me.
First thing I did was sign up for drug treatment. It was a super-intense behavior modification program. I hated every day of it. Didn’t understand it. They made me take a look at myself. Whew, that was a lot. Second thing I did was sign up for forgiveness class. I had a whole lot of forgiveness to do and a whole lot of forgiveness to ask for. That’s where I met Pastor Emily Cardin. She immediately brought light into a very dark space. It was like magic. Her smile, her aura, her compassion, for the love of the inmates, and her teaching of her class. She was the best thing that ever happened to me. I felt like I could breathe.
She invited me to her church, New Beginnings Church, on Friday night. I didn’t have nothing else going on that night, so I thought “OK. Might as well go to church.” She was contagious to me. I wanted to be around her and the love that she showed me and that she showed the Lord.
Throughout all the educational therapy classes, I think about 27 in all that I took while I was in prison, New Beginnings was the only place that gave me a purpose. Pastor Emily believed in me. That made me believe in myself… to do different. I actually for the first time in my life wanted to know more about something than myself. And that was God. I heard songs, stories that I’d never heard before. I couldn’t get enough. I was starving for Him. I got higher on God than I had ever on any drug and I’m still high today. It gave me honest, hope, reason, stillness. The seed was planted in me like concrete. I loved worshipping and Bible study. I loved how the Holy Spirit was so present. My relationship with the Lord became very intimate and very profound. He provided me with the knowledge to fight for my freedom. I knew nothing about law, but He did and I trusted Him… and I used what he gave me. I had always said, “Lord if I can get out of this place, I’d like to be out by the time I’m 40 years old.” He released me the day before my 40th birthday.
So, I got out of prison. I have no family, I don’t have no friends. I have no money. I’m super, super scared to even cross the street. I kept tellin’ myself, “Believe and trust in Him. He will show you the way.”
Pastor Emily was to do a service on the outside at a church, Holy Trinity Lutheran Church for a couple of months while Pastor Dave was on sabbatical. I was in a halfway house. The first Sunday I looked outside. It was pouring down rain. I went , “Wow!” I get on my bike and I ride about 4 miles. So if you can imagine what I looked like in the pouring down rain on a bicycle… I looked like a wet dog. So I go in the church and sit down and enjoy the service. I sit quietly and very humble. My eyes were fresh and wide open, “Wow! Is this what it’s really like?” It took my breath away. It took me about 4 months to dry away my tears.
I am free and I’m right where I’m supposed to be.
I get involved with my community, my church and I overheard a man talking at a committee meeting one day about Habitat for Humanity. I asked him, “You think I could qualify for something like that?” He says, “You know, Sprink, when the next orientation comes up, I’ll go head and give you a call.” Four months later I was in orientation, nine months later I was building my brand new house. My house was built by all women. It’s 5-star energy rated, it’s affordable, and it’s mine. They dedicated it 2 days before Christmas. The feeling of the day of, I felt “Who’s gonna show up to my dedication?” I was at work and I was kinda like, “Who’s gonna come to my funeral today?” It was weird. It was like, “Who’s gonna take time out of their busy day to come support me?” At my house there was over a hundred people… plus Channel 4 news was there. So, the whole world showed up that day.
There was one, in particular, person that was there. I get this tap on my shoulder and I turned around. She introduces herself as the Warden from Denver Women’s Correctional Facility. We instantly shed tears and she asked me if I could come back to the prison and volunteer. They don’t see success… not very often. She asked me to come back to prison. I said, “Good luck with that. I’m on probation ‘til 2018.” I know you folks know how hard it is to get into prison if you’re not committing a crime, it’s like an act a Congress. So, I was joking around with her so I thought, “Yeah, I’ll come back.”
Two months ago I went to prison. I spoke to about 75 women inmates. I asked the Lord, “How does this work? How are you bringing me back to the prison? I’m on the opposite side, now.” I let them know everything is possible with God. I knew it was a place that I would never, ever live again. It sealed the deal. I knew it was over for me. There was one thing that was very hard for me, and that was to leave… leave them women behind. The lifers – the ones that are never ever gonna get out. My heart bleeds for them.
What prison would be without church? It would be a very dark place. There’d be no place to worship, there would be no place to connect with your brothers and sisters of Christ, there would be no forgiveness, there would be no sense of being, no sense of hope, no purpose. I don’t know of a better place to become one with God than in prison. Because of New Beginnings, a couple a years in prison fightin’ for my life, the support of several churches, inside and out, my community, my job… I built a support system. It’s so important to bridge that gap because if you don’t bridge the gap from prison to the streets you’re not going to survive. One thing Colorado does not have is re-entry programs. So they leave it up to you to figure it out. Very hard. But I went to the church… and they loved me. They loved me for who I am. I love me for who I am. If I didn’t do what I did, I wouldn’t be the person that I am today. I’m here to tell you that there is proof… everything is possible through God.
I believe in myself. I believe in others.
Thank you all, thank you very much.
When Paths Cross
By Mary Mortenson
On October 15, 2011, Mary and Jack Mortenson worshipped with St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church in Draper, Utah welcoming them into the PCA family of congregational prison ministry. How this congregation came into being is a witness to how God leads people to amazing adventures.
In 2008 and 2009, when Rev. Charles Hines worked at Volunteers of America Adult Detox, he learned that many of the people whom they served were living on the streets and had been in prison, and he saw how devastating addictions to drugs and alcohol can be. When he left VOA, Rev. Hines did an interim ministry at First Christian Church in Burlington, Colorado, but couldn’t get his previous work out of his mind. He became aware of PCA while he was in Colorado, and the concept of a church in a prison seemed like it would afford a wonderful opportunity to serve Christ by serving people who had experienced life in a way similar to the "clients" at VOA.
Charles was concerned about forming a mainline church, ecumenical in spirit, when relatively speaking there are not that many protestant mainline churches in Utah. When he first went to the prison in Draper, he told God that he thought someone other than him could better start a church there than him. The answer, not audible, but very strong was, “I want a church at this prison.”
Casey Chapman met Charles while he, too, was working at Adult Detox. When Charles shared his vision for a prison church with Casey, he immediately caught the fire for the ministry, and the two men have been going together to the prison every week since the congregation had it’s first service August 21, 2010. The St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church in the Utah State Prison Timpanogos Facility was born. St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church has weekly Saturday afternoon Bible study and worship, has celebrated several baptisms, offered deacons’ training, and is engaged in ministry outreach to the prison and beyond.
When Bill Germundson chose to be an Americorp volunteer, he was assigned to Lutheran Social Services in Salt Lake City, Utah.
One day he saw a billboard with the following message: “The US, which has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s prisoners.” Charles had shared about his call to prison ministry with contacts at LSS, and ultimately, LSS offered to “share” Bill with St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church, where he is now working on setting up reentry programs and training.
Through all of this time, Charles had a close relationship with Granger Christian Church. From this relationship would come more people willing to share their gifts with the St. Francis congregation. Glennys Sabuco and Mickey Graft have been wonderful in helping to develop a reentry ministry. Wayne Schouten and Carolyn Holdsworth along with Casey, Bill, and Charles serve on the SFACC board.
Most Sundays, Charles is out in various congregations, telling the St. Francis story. After Charles spoke at Mount Vista United Methodist Church in West Jordan, relatively new member,
Wanda Fox, felt God's call to do ministry with the prisoners, and has been faithful in worshiping at SFACC ever since.
One Sunday, Charles didn’t have another speaking engagement and so agreed to lead the adult Sunday school class at Granger Christian Church. That particular Sunday, a retired Disciples of Christ pastor named Harold Straughn decided to visit Granger Christian for worship and Sunday school. After hearing the story of St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church, he offered to conduct training sessions for people and their families who want to go inside the prison to worship with the women.
These people and others have been on a journey, which brought them to St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church, and like a spider web in the morning sun, what they are creating is beautiful and blessed.
Worship Out Loud
June 27, 2011
There is something about worship with a prison congregation. It sounds ironic, but the difference has to do with a sweet freedom of expression. The sheer beauty of the sound of prison worship moves me to tears.
Sharing of the peace is shared with EVERYONE, with enthusiasm, laugher and noise! Even in the places where hugging is forbidden, the handshakes carry all the warmth that one human can share with another.
In April, I shared the Palm Sunday service, held the Thursday night before, with Women at the Well in Mitchellville, IA. Homemade palm fronds were waved during the hymns and prayers, and when Pr. Arnette said, “Hosanna!” the response was a collective loud “Hosanna!” back to her. I believed there truly was celebration at the Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem!! It isn’t just Palm Sunday that these women are exuberant in their worship. Every congregational response in the service is strong and loud and confident.
Recently Jack and I worshipped with St. Dysmas in Springfield, SD. I love to worship there with members that I have known for years. This particular night, the men sang a song called "Undo." When it got to the chorus, those men’s voices were strong and beautiful, as they sang:
Turn me around, pick me up
Undo what I’ve become
Bring me back to the place
Of forgiveness and grace
I need You, need Your help
I can’t do this myself
You’re the only one who can undo
What I’ve become
This is happening in fifteen congregations all over the country. This summer, interest in the model is outpacing financing, so if you would like to make a first time or an additional gift to help get us through the summer, and to assure that this amazing model of prison ministry continues to grow, we'll gratefully accept your check or PayPal donation. God bless!
The Spirit is Moving
October 26, 2010
I think we'll be celebrating at least two new congregations in 2011!
In the Timpanogos Facility in Draper, UT, on Saturday afternoons, a fledgling congregation of women meets with their pastor, the Rev. Charles Hines. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will be the umbrella denomination for this new congregation called St. Francis of Assisi Christian Church. The worship and Bible study are happening, the women are involved, and the denomination supports the effort. Next on the agenda is for Rev. Hines to form a steering committee to help find funding and local church support. In this area, the local church support - both financially and as worship guests - will come from a variety of denominations. I met with many of these planners earlier this month. It was humbling and exciting to experience their energy and commitment!
The steering committee working towards a congregation in the men's prison in Deer Lodge, MT will soon be in the call process. We fully expect the congregation there to be viable in 2011. This group has been working for a few years now, focussing on obtaining sufficient finances for the ministry to begin. Sometime it takes awhile for all the steps to be completed, but I know that this congregation will be planted deep and true and will be around for many years to come.
Life is good. God is good. All the time.
What A Week This Has Been!!
October 4, 2010
The last few days have been tastes and tastes again of what PCA is all about!! It all began last Thursday, September 30 with our annual Come and See conference, which is an event at which we explain and demonstrate the PCA model of prison ministry to folks who have expressed an interest the past year. This year we had 13 participants, eight of whom are planning on starting a congregation in the prison in Newton, IA. To say that the energy level was high is an understatement!!! Others in the group included a man from Minnesota whose heart is leading him ever closer to prison ministry, and some PCA board members, one of whom is instrumental in continuing work for a congregation in Montana. These folks heard about the model and then were treated to the voices of many of the main players in the Sioux Falls area - pastors, visitors, returned citizens, prison administration and a reentry specialist. The highlight was worshipping with Prison Lighthouse Fellowship and St. Dysmas, two congregations in the prisons in SIoux Falls, SD.
Next on the agenda was our fall board meeting. PCA is governed by an eleven person national board, whose names are listed on our website. These folks represent different parts of the country and different denominations, and they they bring different experiences and skill sets to the table. They challenge me when necessary and affirm me as that is appropriate. This ministry, and me, personally are blessed to have these people on the team.
The week-end culminated with the Annual Partners at the Cross banquet to which the local planning team, board and staff welcomed some 150 people. The Master's Voice Quartet (www.mastersvoicequartet.com) sang for us and Rev. Diane Harrison, pastor of Grace Place in Memphis, TN, our newest PCA congregation was the keynote speaker. it was a beautiful night of greeting old friends and meeting new ones. It is humbling to be reminded that this ministry survives and thrives because of the support of fine people like those at the banquet.
My heart overflows with joy, praise and thanks...and now to the business of sending thanks to those many people who made the last week one to cherish.
Something New and Something Tried and True
September 10, 2010
The "Something New" is our new website!!! I'm so excited about this! Thanks to Jake Peterson of 5j Design for doing great work and for putting up with all of my picky changes!! If you ever need web design or on-line service management, contact Jake at firstname.lastname@example.org. He even convinced me to get PCA on Twitter - I haven't tweeted yet, but I will...
The "Something Tried and True" is this amazing ministry. I have told many that this job is the best gig of my life. The model of prison ministry that we offer is healthy and mature. It enriches the lives of the inmate members even as it renews the outside church.
Every time I worship with a prison congregation, it is a Pentecost moment! I got another dose of the Spirit last night when I worshipped with St. Dysmas in Springfield, SD. There were prayer, praise and education. The men of St. Dysmas, Springfield are served by Pr. Kwen Sanderson, this amazing man who treats the men like they are intellectuals, fully capable of intense study and conversation. They will even be having an Introduction to Hebrew class!!
Life is good. God is good.