In 1984, Lutheran Pastor Ed Nesselhuf accepted a call into prison ministry at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women. The following year Pastor Ed established the first congregation of The Community of St. Dysmas, a mission of what would later become the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
An anointed storyteller, no one can articulate this process better than Ed himself, so please enjoy this vintage video from 1987.
A second congregation of The Community of St. Dysmas was developed soon after, at the Maryland Correctional Institution in Jessup. Pastor Ed wasn’t fully aware at the time, but his experiences ministering inside these prisons had ignited a passion that set his life of pastoral service on an ordained trajectory, the impact of which would continue far beyond his earth years.
In 1987, Pastor Ed, a beloved cowboy poet born in Colorado and as well a son of the Dakota prairies where he began in ministry, returned to the Midwest to fulfill a call to serve at the University of South Dakota’s Lutheran Center. The pastor’s heart forever changed by the incarcerated men and women in Maryland, God impressed upon him the universality of the need for grounded communities of faith and consistent pastoral care inside prison walls. In partnership with the ELCA Churchwide, the South Dakota Synod of the ELCA, the Department of Corrections, friends, family, and others who were caught up in the wind of the Holy Spirit as God’s vision came alive in Pastor Ed, the prison congregation model took root in South Dakota. First at the South Dakota State Penitentiary, and then at the Mike Durfee State Prison. Learn more about St. Dysmas of South Dakota.
From these initial congregations in Maryland and South Dakota, Pastor Ed recognized the value in this emerging model that joined prison congregates in a denominational-supported-and-sanctioned church on the inside with communities of faith in the free world. The move of God was apparent not only in the lives of the incarcerated men and women worshipers, but also among those donors and volunteers who resourced the prison congregation, many of whom worshiped with the prison congregates, and assisted with other activities affiliated with the faith community inside the facility.
Pastor Ed saw the exciting potential of eventually seeing these “inside/outside” partnerships developed across the United States. In 1994, the formation of a 501c3 national nonprofit called Prison Congregations of America (PCA) became the vehicle to replicate this model from coast to coast. Pastor Ed served as Executive Director from PCA’s inception until 2009 when he retired.
God’s faithful servant, Ed Nesselhuf, took his last breath on earth and his first in heaven in 2016. He is profoundly missed by all who knew him, and countless others whose lives have been touched by his life of service, whether directly or indirectly. PCA’s leadership is dedicated to preserving Pastor Ed’s legacy, and continuing the transformative work the Lord began in Maryland’s prison system all those years ago.
Many people have asked who is St. Dysmas and why is he the namesake of the flagship prison congregations?
The most fitting answer comes in the words and poetry of Pastor Ed himself:
Dysmas is a name that’s common in prison ministry. It’s the name that the early church gave to the repentant thief on the cross next to Jesus. The one who asked to be remembered when Jesus came into His Kingdom, and Jesus promised him, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”
If prisoners have a patron saint, it would have to be Dysmas.