St. Michael’s Program of Social Outreach to the Criminally Insane
By Fr. John Kowalczyk
For the past 12 years, the St. Michael’s Outreach Group of Jermyn, PA has been ministering at the Forensic Treatment Center in Waymart, PA. This outreach ministry has been a unique experience for us in that we serve a forensic (criminally insane) population of about 120 patients.
Prisoners are brought to this facility from other prisons in Pennsylvania. They are brought here because they have become a threat to themselves or to others in the general prison population setting. Some have been sent to the Center to determine if they are competent to stand trial. Those who have been convicted are serving sentences of five, ten, twenty years, to life in prison. In Pennsylvania, life means with no chance of parole. Ninety percent of the patients themselves have come from dysfunctional families and have been abused physically as well as sexually.
When the patients arrive they are seen by a treatment team in the hospital. This team is comprised of a psychiatrist, psychologist, physician, nurse and social workers. The usual stay at the Center is from 90 to 180 days.
All the patients are on psychotropic medicine and are encouraged to participate in therapy. Many of the patients are very depressed on arrival, many are also suicidal. The treatment teams have in place a “level system” with the patients. When they reach a certain level of cooperation and show that they are making an effort at recovery, they are permitted to go off the Unit to the recreation area for extra activities. One such activity is Bingo.
It is at this point that our St. Michael’s Outreach Program comes into place. Fr. John Kowalczyk, our pastor, is also Coordinator of Field Work for the seminarians at St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Part of his job was to get to know the institutions in the area where the seminarians could perform outreach ministry. When Fr. John heard of the need at the Forensic Center for volunteers to help the patients play Bingo on Wednesday evenings, he announced this need from the pulpit, and we ladies took up the challenge.
There are approximately seven of us from the parish. Most of us are retired. We agreed to help with the Bingo once a month. Fr. John always comes with us.
At first we were somewhat intimidated by the barbed wire, and the security checks we needed to go through to get into the Center. Each one of us had to participate in an all day orientation session, and then go through a background clearance. But the respect and appreciativeness we are shown by the patients makes up for any fears. We feel we have become a part of the healing ministry of this hospital.
Game As Therapy
The bingo game is used by the treatment team in a very therapeutic way. For mentally ill patients the concentration on the game becomes a challenge. They have to listen to the numbers being called and then properly place the chips on the bingo board. The patients learn the lesson of beginning and ending a project. If they win there is the reward aspect of the game.
We bring bags of chips, pretzels and candy as prizes for the winners. For the majority of patients, if they win a game, it’s the first time they’ve won anything in their lives. On the Sunday before we visit the Center, we ask for donations following the liturgy. The money helps us finance this ministry.
When the patients know that it’s the week that the Orthodox ladies are coming to hold Bingo, they’ve been coming in record numbers. They come not just for the prizes, but to receive the gift of love, care and forgiveness from the outside world. The patients are treated with unconditional positive regard. They are treated like human beings, though they have made serious mistakes in their lives, and are paying the price with their incarceration. They are also mentally ill.
Following the bingo game that lasts about 90 minutes, there is the social part of the outreach. We ladies served the patients a soft drink and dessert. Genuine personal interaction takes place with a loving and caring spirit. We listen to their problems, give them a hug or a pat when they are feeling down. What energizes our program are the patients. They are very grateful to us for the visit and go out of their way to thank us.
This ministry helps fulfill the mandate of Christ, “I was in prison and you visited me….” and we are reminded of the prisoner who was crucified with Christ, who said, “Remember me, Lord, when you come into you Kingdom.” Though we are not there to evangelize in words, they know we are from the Orthodox Church. We end each evening with prayer. When these men have served their time and are able to go back into society, they may remember the Orthodox Church as one that cared about them.
This outreach program was cited four years ago by the Governor of Pennsylvania to receive the Volunteer of the Year Award, the highest volunteer award in the State. The award was given to our ladies in particular, because we are the only church that has been visiting this institution. God has given us the courage to continue and has protected the ladies. We believe that in some small way we do make a difference in the lives of these patients.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION:
1) Does our parish have an Outreach Ministry?
If yes, what are the programs in which it’s been involved?
If no, is it an area of ministry that we want to explore? What would be the responsibilities? the benefits?
2) Do we have any prisons or correctional institutions in the nearby area?
3) Discuss the challenge these ladies face in their monthly encounter with the inmates who are mentally ill. What are the fears? the rewards? the Christian witness?
4) Is a prison ministry one that some people in our parish might respond to?
What information would need to be gathered?
What type of commitment would need to be made?
How could the parish as a whole support those who might volunteer?
5) Discuss the longevity of the commitment these ladies have madetwelve years so far. What does it take to keep a volunteer group going for that length of time?