Each Sunday, members of the St. Mark’s Episcopal Jail Ministry Team visit inmates at the Pike County jail. All members of St. Marks are welcome to participate in the ministry and over the years at least forty members or friends of St. Marks have attended services at the jail. Through the weekly presence of two or three members of the jail team we share the light and love of Jesus to men whose lives are disrupted through incarceration.
Each inmate who joins in the service may make specific prayer requests, and the requests are then shared with 27 parish members through email. Over time, some additions to this ministry have also been allowed. These include a fourth Sunday birthday cupcake celebration which includes both inmates and staff. An annual chicken barbeque prepared by men and women of St. Marks is provided to all. Additionally, on a Sunday close to Christmas, gift bags and cards are provided. One member of the staff, influenced by our ministry, joined St. Marks. Also, we have had four inmates receive the sacrament of Holy Baptism.
All that we do is made possible only because the Pike County sheriff supports our ministry and the doors to the jail are opened to us by the staff whose job it is to guard those on the inside. As we bring ourselves to this place, our mission is to bring hope to the hopeless and the love of Jesus to the lonely and depressed. As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor asserts: “Darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.” The physical condition of the jail cannot limit the light. We serve Christ when we serve inmates. The words of Jesus in Matthew 25 provide the reason for our mission: “…when I was in prison, you came and visited me…in as much as you do it to one of the least, you did it unto me.”
Just recently we were told we could also visit the women inmates. Why, after 13 years, did this happen? As in other issues in a correctional facility, sometimes there are no clear answers. Incarcerated women are the most marginalized in our society. For me personally and for others on the jail team, the years of not visiting the women was like ignoring Jesus’s command to include all who are among “the least of these.”
I have found the freshness of God’s Spirit within myself through ministry to the women. I also found a renewed calling to serve and more joy than I can fully express. However, in visiting the women, the joy has been colored with the awareness that depression is a very disturbing fact of daily life behind a solid steel door. This door has a 14 x 14-inch square mesh “window” through which we can sing together and pray together. For the women who choose to participate in the Eucharist a smaller window in the door is opened so that we can pass to the women the service leaflets and communion wafers we need for Eucharist. This remains open very briefly which makes touching hands for personal prayer or “private” conversation possible.
Research across the lifespan has conclusively shown that human interaction is vital for a healthy and meaningful life. This need does not stop when one is jailed; it, of course, increases. For a few visits, I have tried touching two fingers to two fingers pressed against this mesh barrier. This past Sunday, the day of Pentecost, the smaller window was somehow left open for our entire time together. I thank Jesus for giving us that open window. We passed the peace with human touch; we prayed with human touch; and one newly incarcerated woman cried while we prayed for her children – with our hands touching. I felt her pain and pray that she felt the love and peace of God at the time. I hope the smaller window will open again.
Our sustenance for the ministry comes through the love of Jesus and the prayers of the people each Sunday. What must appear to be difficult to do is not difficult at all. This from the Saint Augustine's Prayer Book serves as the perfect prayer for our ministry:
Lord Jesus, who traveled with us on the road to Emmaus: Be with us on our way, that we may know you in the scriptures, in the breaking of the bread, and in the hearts of all whom we meet. Amen.