St. Seraphim Fellowship
By James Seraphim Blackstock
In 1996, I started to think seriously about my life and responsibility as a Christian and became aware that I was a taker and not a giver. My thinking was distorted because I only thought about what God and the Church could do for me. The church services were there to inspire me to worship. Sermons were there for me so that I could take out of them what I wanted. I had learned how to nod my head in all the right places. I came to know that I was cold in my heart, only lukewarm at my best moments.
At the same time, I experienced some very real and difficult life challenges that brought about an opportunity to look deeply into myself. What I saw was a crisis of faith. I slowly began to see the Church as a hospital for the souls of men and women, and I desperately needed to be healed. It was through the Orthodox Church that I began to grapple with my own passions and to think correctly about myself and God. I began to understand that I needed to “live” my faith in community, that I needed to take what God had given me and give it to others in love. I started going into the prisons, and there I discovered the Christ who dwelled with the men I found there.
Through the influence of men like Fr. Duane Pederson, founder of the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM), now an agency of the Orthodox Episcopal Assembly (formerly the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America), and Fr. Michael Byars of the Antiochian Orthodox Church, I received the guidance I needed to embark on the ministry that is now called St. Seraphim Fellowship.
St. Seraphim Fellowship
St. Seraphim Fellowship has operated for more than ten years. For over four years, the Fellowship has served as a prison outreach ministry of Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church in Ormond Beach, Florida. Fr. Michael Byars, priest at Holy Cross, is the spiritual advisor of the ministry and I serve as the ministry’s director. The Fellowship is currently governed by a Board of Directors that includes the two of us plus Kenneth Kidd, treasurer and Kathleen Atkins, secretary.
The ministry reaches approximately 600 men and women residing in 22 different prisons throughout Florida. Of these, 120 individuals receive consistent, monthly correspondence and care from the ministry. Assisted by a team of 30 volunteers, Fr. Michael and I coordinate a ministry of visitation, evangelism, and a developing ministry of reintegration assistance once the person returns to society.
By the grace of God, we have had the honor to see many come to Christ and to be received into the Orthodox Church. One of the first prisoners to be received into the Holy Orthodox Church by the efforts of our ministry was Mark Schwab, a Baptist by birth. Mark was introduced to the Orthodox Church over a period of two years, with regular visits to his cell on Florida’s death row. To tell his whole story would require writing a book. When the time came for his reception into the Church, we saw a real transformation come over Mark. His whole countenance changed, and he was filled with wonder and love for God and his fellow man. God’s presence was palpable during his chrismation. He went to his execution thirteen days later with real peace in his heart.
Most of the ministry occurs at three Florida facilities, two maximum security jails and one medium security jail. I visit each of these facilities weekly, with regular visits during the month from Fr. Byars and Kenneth Kidd, a Fellowship volunteer. A new volunteer, Subdeacon Yuri Brubach, is currently in training. Many prisoners who were originally housed at one of these three facilities have, over time, been transferred to other state facilities, resulting in the current reach of the program into 22 state facilities.
At the medium security facility we have a regular Bible Study with 26 prisoners, 22 of whom are either cradle Orthodox or have been chrismated over the course of this ministry. The studies focus on overcoming the passions and living a life in Christ. Specific passions discussed include pride, vanity and self-indulgence. Twenty-eight prisoners are currently enrolled in a prayer discipline.
Presently, the ministry has catechumens in all three facilities mentioned above. Fr. Michael and I use a combination of catechism books provided by OCPM, as well as the books, “The Faith” and “The Way” by Orthodox author, Clark Carlton. All prisoners who are baptized or chrismated into the Orthodox Church become members of Holy Cross parish.
Not everyone is prepared or equipped to visit the people in prison. It requires much training and one must successfully pass a rigid background check by the State, as well as attend State training classes. One must also be able to see these men and women in the light of Christ’s forgiveness and redemption.
However, in addition to visitation, and core to the ministry is regular, written correspondence with the prisoners. This correspondence includes personal letters as well as cards for birthdays, Orthodox namesdays, Nativity and Pascha. The 30 volunteers send an average of 300 letters and cards each month to the prisoners. The Christmas and Pascha card projects are a tremendous hit as they are hand made by children from different Orthodox parishes around the country.
I maintain a database of the 120 prisoners that receive the regular correspondence and care. I also train and coordinate the volunteers who write to the prisoners. The Fellowship has launched a new website: www.stseraphimsfellowship.org and will soon distribute its 4th bi-annual newsletter, entitled “The Examiner—In Bonds,” first published in 2009. It is distributed freely in the prisons.
We also sponsor two dinners annually, one at Christmas and the other at Pascha in the same facility. The food is prepared by Boston Market and brought in to the men. Two dedicated and loving families from Holy Cross fund the dinners.
Maintaining such a parish-based ministry with a statewide reach and extensive volunteers requires overcoming some unique challenges. Neither Fr. Michael nor I receive any compensation specifically for these prison ministry activities. Monthly expenses average $1,500 and include gasoline, postage, printing, and resource books. The costs are covered by the generous donations of parishioners and friends of the ministry.
Future Development of St. Seraphim Fellowship
In August 2010, St. Seraphim Fellowship obtained official status as a registered corporation in Florida. It is now developing a strategy that will grow the ministry into a resource for the Orthodox faithful of all jurisdictions in Florida. The Board of Directors is now beginning to outline both the short and long-term goals and the objectives of the ministry. The early vision of the Fellowship includes developing a network of clergy and lay servants throughout the state that would serve the 22 facilities that the ministry currently reaches. A long-range vision would be to reach all 139 correctional facilities in the state.
Under the spiritual guidance of Fr. Byars, and following the best practices as put forth by OCPM, a retreat and volunteer recruitment campaign will be launched. It will provide a spiritual foundation for those wanting to enter into the ministry, as well as the technical skills necessary to assist in this vital work. The hoped for result of this campaign would be a team of twelve or more clergy visiting/ providing spiritual care and catechism, and a team of thirty or more lay servants (in addition to our current thirty volunteers) writing and/or visiting prisoners in a nearby prison.
While the Fellowship will strongly focus on visitation and evangelism, it will also include ministry to those re-entering society, assisting them with housing, employment and social needs.
The Reintegration of Parolee, Michael Brown
The following is an example of how our Fellowship is helping one parolee adjust to his return to life on the outside. St. Seraphim Foundation has known Michael Brown for a long time. We visited with him regularly and maintained regular correspondence with him for many years while he was incarcerated. On September 3, 2010, I received a letter from Michael informing me of a new requirement that he would have to comply with before his parole would be granted. It was that he would need to have a job before they would consider releasing him. While this requirement in not unknown, it was something that had never been brought up in any of his former hearings, and he was given only a few weeks notice. His parole hearing was scheduled for September 15th.
Through the guidance and encouragement of Dennis Dunn, OCA representative to OCPM, I spent the next eight days on the phone, calling businesses in Jacksonville, Florida in an effort to secure a job offer for Michael. On September 13th, after calling hundreds of businesses, it became apparent that finding a job for him before his parole hearing was unlikely.
In light of this, I composed a letter and sent it to his Classification Officer. The letter detailed our efforts to secure a job offer. I explained that our efforts would not stop on the 15th, and that there were many people in our community that were dedicated to Michael’s success on the outside. This letter was hand delivered to the Parole Board hearing. Michael’s parole was granted and he was released on September 28, 2010. He will spend the next year in a halfway house in Jacksonville. Our ministry will be in close contact with him until his time there is completed and beyond.
Michael was received into the Orthodox Church through chrismation twelve years ago. At the time he was held at the medium security prison and was present every Wednesday when I taught a course on the passions there. Michael’s only experience with Orthodoxy has been in prison. Fr. Byars would hear confessions every so often and would try to bring the Pre Sanctified gifts to these men once a month.
On the Outside
After Michael’s release from prison, on Sunday, October 10th 2010, I had the privilege of taking Michael to his first liturgy in a real Orthodox Church. Previous arrangements had been made by Fr. Byars and myself, with Fr. Ted Pisarchuk, the parish priest of St. Justin the Martyr Orthodox Church (OCA) in Jacksonville, to begin taking Michael there.
Fr. Ted has welcomed Michael into his church where he will be a member until he has finished his stay at the halfway house in Jacksonville. Michael was able to go to confession before the Liturgy, as it had been some time since his last one.
It is hard to describe what Michael’s feelings were at his first Divine Liturgy in a real church, but you could see in his eyes the wonder that he felt. He expressed amazement at the beautiful music ministry of the very excellent choir there. He said it sounded like a choir of angels. He had never heard anything like it, and he felt like he was in heaven. Michael was able to take communion and Fr. Ted welcomed him publicly at the end of the service.
After the Liturgy, we went into the fellowship hall where we had coffee. Many church members came over to the table to welcome him. Fr. Ted also joined us at the table where we talked and enjoyed wonderful fellowship together. Many in the church have reached out to Michael and have made him feel like part of the family.
St. Seraphim Fellowship remained committed for the next twelve weeks to provide transportation for Michael to get to church each Sunday. Besides seeking rides from parishioners, we have found a way for him to use public transportation when a private ride is not available. We continued in our efforts to secure employment for Michael. By the grace of God, Michael was able at last to find a job with a local credit company, and is currently employed.
More Orthodox Parolees Expected This Year
The Fellowship is also in the process of recruiting additional volunteers who will act as mentors to five additional parolees who are coming up for release within the next year. The mentors are essential and provide the men with the guidance they need to be successful in their efforts to re-enter society and become productive people with a solid foundation in their financial life as well as their personal life. Spiritual counsel comes only from the Church which will remain a refuge and a sanctuary for each of the men.
Inspired by Matthew 25:31-46, the Fellowship serves as a ministry of visitation, a ministry of evangelism, reconciliation, an aid to those living in prison, and as a support to the men and women as they are released back into society. Please pray for us as we seek to love and guide those that will be released later this year and for our brother, Michael, who once was lost, but now is found!