Sep 29, 2018

by Rev. Steve Peterson, former board president

I was in Kalispell, Montana a number of years ago for the wedding of a nephew.  The wedding had successfully and beautifully taken place on the shores of Flathead Lake on Saturday. It was now Sunday morning and I had gone for a walk. There were earbuds in my ears (good place for them, right?) and I was listening to songs from James Hersch, a musician I had become familiar with through Outlaw Ranch church camp. 

I don’t know if it was the transitional force of witnessing a beautiful wedding, the beautiful day on the edge of the Montana mountains, just being on vacation or, who knows just the Holy Spirit acting randomly, but that morning I was feeling pretty pensive and reflective and the content of the reflection was turning toward a desire to live my faith out more authentically through connecting more with people living on the margins of society. You know, Matthew 25 kind of stuff – meeting Jesus in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing for the naked, caring for the sick, visiting those in prison.  Wait, visiting those in prison?

I had by that time been a financial supporter of Prison Congregations in America (PCA) since it’s beginning. I had known and deeply respected founder Ed Nesselhuf for years and was excited by his vision for prison congregations. I had, however, had very little direct personal involvement at that point with actually myself visiting those in prison.

For some reason that morning that reality really jumped out at me. I wondered if there was some way I could become more involved in PCA in a more personal way or if not that in some kind of prison or jail ministry. I wondered about connecting somehow with the new PCA executive director who I had not yet met.  As if to reinforce all of that reflection, one song from the James Hersch CD jumped like a lightening bolt through the earbuds penetrating my thick skull and ripping open my heart. The song, entitled “My Jesus” is about the temptation to privatize Jesus and make Jesus in our own image in a way the distances us and our image of Jesus from those who look and live differently than ourselves.

So, is this a coincidence? That morning my wife Enid and I were scrambling to get packed up and out of our hotel room in time to get to worship at the Lutheran church we had noticed on the main drag of Kalispell. It seems that all that reflection on my walk had gotten us pressed for time. We pulled up to that church late with cars all around but no movement and we knew the worship was already beginning.  We debated quickly whether or not to skip the embarrassment of walking in late, knowing this was a Lutheran Church and there probably wouldn’t be room to slip into a back pew unnoticed. Well we did go in, sheepishly, and I heard a woman speaking at the front of the church about Prison Congregations in America. It was the new executive director of PCA, Mary Mortenson.

I have always appreciated the fact that Mary immediately seized on our meeting that morning as a Holy Spirit moment. I have since come to know that that’s just who Mary is. Her openness to the Holy Spirit as much as her great personal skill and dedication is what has, in my mind, defined her extraordinary PCA leadership.  My encounter with Mary that morning led to my attending a “Come and See” PCA event, to several experiences inside prison walls,  a serious and fruitful flirtation with becoming a PCA prison congregation pastor and then six wonderful years on the PCA board of directors.

What is the moral of this story?  God speaks, if we are listening. The Holy Spirit advocates for those in prison and those who need to visit them so that they can meet God there together. God speaks especially loud through the ministry of PCA – Go to prison God says, and I will meet you there!  

Category: Spirit

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