A Parish Prison Ministry

By Father Demetrius Nicoloudakis

Our parish prison ministry began some twelve years ago.  I got a call from the Chaplain of a nearby prison facility, letting me know that there were some Orthodox inmates there.  I went to the prison to meet with the Chaplain and to see how we could be of help. I went in my cassock to help be identified as an Orthodox priest. There are other larger Orthodox parishes close-by, but the schedules of their priests did not allow them the time to become involved.  I began by visiting five Orthodox inmates weekly. We met on a one-to-one basis to talk and pray together. 

When I spoke with my parish about a possible parish prison ministry, reactions ran the gamut
from those who couldn’t believe that there were Orthodox people in jail, those who were apprehensive about the ones being released ever coming to our church, to those who responded favorably to my invitation to help me by coming to visit the incarcerated people with me.

Bible Study Leads to Catechumens

The Chaplain asked me if I would do a Bible Study with the men who were interested.  We decided to call it “Ancient Church Bible Study,” so that the men would not think it was just for Orthodox Christians. In it we discussed how Christians in the early church looked at Scripture and related to it. The topic piqued their curiosity.  Attendance at the Bible Study sessions began to grow.  There is a limit of twenty-five men to a session.  I soon learned that there was a waiting list of over two hundred men.

I informed the men in the Bible sessions that if they had an interest in learning more about the Orthodox faith, they should let me know.  Several responded positively and a separate catechism class began.  After a short time, many of them were desiring to definitely pursue becoming membered into the Church, so they were inducted as catechumens in a prayer service at the Bible Study.

In covering the various subjects with the catechumens, I used materials put out by the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry Commission (a Commission now under the Assembly of Orthodox Bishops, formerly the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America) and some of my own materials. Sharing in the one-on-one’s, the men became more open, moving toward a level of confession.  Pastorally, I was trying to see what was fractured or broken in them, what needed to be healed.  This was often done in conjunction with the prison counselors.  Over the years some two dozen men have been chrismated and baptized, many of whom are still in touch with me.

The staff at the jail began to notice a positive difference in the behavior of the men who attended the Bible Study.  Staff began coming to the Bible Study sessions and some even converted to the Orthodox faith, including the Chaplain who first contacted me. He with his family converted and joined our parish.  One of the staff in charge of the overall training of other prison personnel occasionally visited our Bible Study sessions. He was leery, though, of going to church, of being stared at, of not feeling accepted because of having a racially mixed marriage and family.  When he and his family finally did come to our church, they were moved, not only by the Liturgy and teachings, but also by the genuine love and acceptance of the parish. He eventually converted to the Orthodox Faith.  After becoming warden at another prison, he has moved on and is now working in Harrisburg as the head of all Corrections in the State of Pennsylvania.

Other Interactions with the Inmates

Our parish began a tradition that on Pascha (Sunday) evening, a group of parishioners and I go to the prison to (re)celebrate Agape Vespers with the Orthodox and catechumen inmates. We bring Paschal food and after the Vesper Service we all have a festive meal together.

My wife, Presbytera Despina, also got involved in this ministry by meeting with the female inmates, talking with them one-on-one, listening to them, and praying with them.  Five years ago, when she gave birth to our fifth child, she was no longer able to keep up the visitations.  Instead, so as not to let the women feel abandoned, she began a “Pound of Love” Project.  Just before Pascha, she would bake enough pound cakes for each of the women inmates.  With other women helping, she was able to bake enough for the almost 300 women who were overjoyed to receive them.  The pound cakes have become so popular that churches of other denominations have joined in making them.  This past year almost 800 pound cakes were baked and distributed to the women inmates, as well as to homeless shelters and food banks in the area. My wife had served as a motherly presence to the women, the majority of whom were between the ages of 18 and 23.  She still corresponds with many of them.

There is a program with the local YMCA where former inmates who come out and have no place to go, take up residence, many of whom are involved in drug/alcohol rehabilitation programs there. The program is called “Half Way Church” to meet those “half way” who are too embarrassed or fearful of non-acceptance to go to any church.  On Thursday evenings, a number of parishioners from St. Matthew and I would go over, have a meal with the men, and do a twenty minutes prayer service (Orthodox evening prayers, hymns).  Homeless people would also participate. Other churches became involved in this program as well. As a number of our teens who were a part of our group, have recently gone off to college, creating a shortage of manpower,  we now help the other churches involved, with the meals.

Preparing Our Parish

When many of those who had become interested in Orthodoxy completed their prison terms, came out, and lived in the area, they wanted to come to our church. We tried to explain to the parishioners that those of us volunteering at the jail, visiting, sharing, teaching, having fellowship with the inmates, represented the Church, specifically expressed in the local Eucharistic community of St. Matthew.  This was a big challenge for our parish.  Many of our parishioners were very unsure. If former inmates were welcomed to come in, what was that going to mean?  Preparing our community became very important.

What could we do to prepare for God’s grace to work?  We tried to prepare on every level. Sermons focused strongly on themes such as “What in fact is the Gospel?”  “What is the Church except to know and be transformed by Christ’s real presence?”  Worship and participation in the Eucharist are not just to give us a good feeling, but to change our lives. The only way we can be open to the Lord transforming the life of someone who had been incarcerated, moving him or her to repentance, is if we believe and see it, personally and collectively in our own lives.

We discussed this outreach in parish Bible Studies, at Parish Council meetings. Eventually the leadership of the parish, the Council, the Philoptochos (the women’s philanthropic group) got on board. That the Prison Chaplain had been elected to the Council didn’t hurt either.

Addressing the Whole Picture

All of this meant addressing the whole picture, especially in terms of expectations of both those we had ministered to in prison and of the parish itself.  Everyone coming out of jail will have many serious challenges; some sadly will return to prison. When I first arrived at St. Matthew’s, we were still worshipping in downtown Reading, a city sadly known for its poverty, drug problems and homicides.  Once a homeless man who occasionally came to church, right in the middle of my sermon, suddenly got up, grabbed the alms box and ran out the side door.  By the time a couple of parishioners caught up with him, he had already purchased drugs with the money he took.

Many in the parish did respond positively. Our Metropolitan Maximos’ support was helpful. He even visited the prison once with me.  When he would visit our parish, he would commend it for its ministry to those who were incarcerated.  He also commended the mixed and varied backgrounds of our parishioners. Lives of former inmates were being changed. They were moving on in healthy ways.  Our task was to help them take responsibility for their faith and life, rather than to try to do it for them.  Yet, not only was recidivism (a return to jail) a challenge, there were parishioners that disagreed with this vision, who left and went to other parishes.

How We Help a Person Released from Prison

Those coming out of prison to our parish for help in re-entering the community can be eligible to participate in what is called the “Lazarus Project”.  (Christ resurrects Lazarus, but directs those around him to “unbind and let him go”. John 11) The County Department of Corrections’ Counseling Staff helps determine if he or she is mentally and emotionally stable enough to participate in the program.  With the County’s assistance, we help the person find a place to live and a job. A mentoring program consisting of three persons of the same gender is set up.  The mentors meet with the person for one year, and are there to help/advise him or her as situations arise to help them get grounded. A number of success stories connected with the Lazarus Project have enhanced its credibility.  Depending on the issues a person struggles with, especially if he or she is an Orthodox Christian, the person also regularly meets with me for pastoral counseling.  I have worked in consultation with the person’s parole officer, “12 Step” sponsors and have even had persons give written permission to their counselor to talk with me and keep me objectively apprised of their progress.

While eight to twelve parishioners form the core of our prison ministry outreach, the whole community becomes involved when a newly released person comes to the church services. As with any visitor, parishioners are encouraged to come up and greet them, talk with them at the coffee hour, introduce them to others, not let them sit alone.  Some may look a little different, i.e.  have a few tattoos.  We are always to keep in mind that they, too, are loved by Our Lord. We make His love known through our reaching out to them in love.

Sex Offenders

The question of a sex offender coming to church is an extremely sensitive one that has been asked, as it has happened in a few parishes in the United States.  The Orthodox Christian Prison Ministries Commission has developed some very real contractual guidelines for dealing with these situations.  From the standpoint of the Gospel, by which we are all judged, we cannot stop him from coming to church, as long as it is approved by his parole officer, counselor and support group to begin with. He would first need to sign a contract (available from OCPM) laying out the boundaries of who he can relate to in the church.  The person would be appointed two sponsors who would also sign the contract and would be there to support him while on the church grounds.  This would not only protect the children, but also the person himself from false accusations. He would agree to meet weekly with me for pastoral sharing and confession.  We are fortunate in that we have parishioners who work in the prison system, so we are well prepared for this situation. I get calls from bishops and priests of all jurisdictions, asking what to do, particularly in these cases.

A Return to Jail Depends Greatly on What Happens When He/She Comes Out

Whether a person returns to jail again or not depends greatly on what happens when he comes out.  The chances of re-incarceration are greatly reduced if there is a faith community waiting for him or her, wanting to help in the readjustment to life on the outside, guiding not only practically, but especially spiritually.

One of our parishioners, baptized a few years ago, was addicted to alcohol and heroin since his teens.  He had been frequently in and out of jail since that time. Now, at forty two years of age, he has been out of jail four years, the longest time out.  He still has struggles but he considers St. Matthew Parish his family, knowing that while we will not enable dysfunctional behaviors, we definitely support efforts when the person takes responsibility for his faith and life soberly.

I must admit that I am proud of my parishioners as they work to make a non-judgmental and accepting environment. At the same time they are being discerning and realistic about the challenges and sin people face that helps them flesh out a life of “normalcy” that is fully manifest in the Lord Jesus, within His Body “on earth as it is in heaven.”

To my knowledge, there is only one other Orthodox parish like St. Matthew in the entire United States that does parish prison ministry.  In other parishes, the priest may go into the prison to visit a particular inmate, or to do a Bible Study, but it is not one where the whole parish is involved.

We try to see ourselves as the embassy of the Kingdom of God on earth. Christ came and inaugurated a brand new reality.  We need to learn to partner, work, and cooperate with Jesus as His apprentices to prepare for His re-birthing of all creation that will become complete when He comes again.

The website for OCPM is http://theorthodoxprisonministry.org.

Fr. Nicoloudakis is a member of the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry Commission and is often invited to give talks at its yearly Convocation. Besides his pastoral work and being in demand as a speaker for conferences and retreats, he teaches as an Adjunct Professor at Alvernia University in Reading, PA and at St. Sophia’s Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary, Bound Brook, NY.