When it comes to the Church and the achievement of full equality, the parable of sheep and goats in Matthew tends to stand out. But when it comes to Matthew 25:36, as the Very Rev. Gary Hall, dean of Washington National Cathedral, notes, “Preachers have selective memories. We tend to stop quoting before we’ve finished with the entire list.”

The Rt. Rev. James B. Magness, sixth bishop suffragan for the Armed Forces and Federal Ministries of the Episcopal Church, understands why. He, too, is familiar with Christianity’s call to advocacy for social justice. He has also seen how easily faith groups can lack the courage of their convictions. “One of the things that I have learned about people in the Church, particularly those of us who are part of the progressive denominations, is that we are able to do a lot of talking,” he says. “We talk well. We talk about things that ought to happen! We talk about ‘those poor people in prison.’ We do handwringing.”

Such fretting isn’t mentioned in Matthew 25:36.

Both Dean Hall and Bishop Magness, who is charged with recruiting Episcopal chaplains for U.S. prisons, spoke early on the morning of Friday, April 19, for “Re-entry: Beyond the Bars and Barriers,” an intensive two-day conference at the historic Mount Vernon UMC campus of Wesley Theological Seminary in downtown Washington, D.C., on the needs of prisoners and “returning citizens”: individuals who face huge challenges in coming back to society after their time behind bars has been completed.

The conference at which Hall and Magness offered their insights was intended to serve as the first part of a longer, sustained response by people of faith to the increasingly grave plight of America’s prison population. Its organizers conceived it as “a conference with work to do,” seeking to inspire informed action from a diverse and often overlapping group of returning citizens as well as participating faith and nonprofit leaders active both locally and throughout the country. It was also a conference keenly aware of the deep roots of prison ministry in the Christian tradition—a legacy of determined advocacy that the Church has not always been eager to claim.

Understanding the Problem

“If you want to learn more about me you can always read my bio, but one thing that’s not in the bio before you today is 10002648, which is my inmate number. So in addition of being a graduate of Morehouse and Howard and Drew, I’m also a graduate of George W. Hill Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania.” The Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear, who gave his keynote address on April 19 in measured tones and with flashes of perfectly timed wit, would not surprise anyone by revealing that he is a professor at Howard University Divinity School (a co-sponsor of the “Re-Entry” conference). Learning about his time in prison comes as a surprise, he knows, which he seizes on to help make his larger point.

“When I go to churches to talk about our work with people who are coming home,” he says, “I always ask the church, ‘Do you know what a returning citizen looks like?’—and they have a certain image. Then I say, ‘Well you have one preaching this morning.’ And we have a little fun with that in terms of breaking stigma and dealing with stereotypes because, as you know, one of
the most difficult things for the faith community to do
in dealing with incarceration is the issue of stigma.”

For Trulear, such stigma coming from a religion whose Scripture repeatedly makes heroes out of prisoners is intolerable. “One of my students at Howard said to me,
‘I just can’t deal with inmates,’” he says. “And I said,
‘Oh, well, can I borrow your Bible for a second? We’ve got to change it.’” Trulear quickly makes the case for removing most of the Old and New Testaments, where figures from Joseph to St. Peter spend time in jail.

As for the violent offenders and other wrongdoers
mentioned in the Bible, Trulear observes, “God worked with all of those folks. So if the inmate is stigmatized, we’ve got to take out half the Bible.” Ultimately, he says, the Church is called “not just to go into the prison for the prisoners we don’t know, but to reach back through our families to claim our own sons and grandsons who are incarcerated—to be about the business of family reconciliation and keeping families together, providing lines for families so that they can give the support they need and desire.” It’s a process that begins with what he refers to as normalization, “lifting the stigma and the shame so that those who suffer in silence in the pews
can have their problem named and addressed.”

Repairing the System

For despite Christians’ uneasiness about the duty placed on them to visit prisoners, the plight that all faith communities are crucial to join in addressing has only increased. This holds true especially in America, which can boast the highest rate of incarceration in the world—and some of the largest prisons, placed far away from urban centers. The largest concentration of District of Columbia residents behind bars, for example, has in recent decades been at Rivers Correctional Institute in Winton, N.C., more than 200 miles away.

Gone are the days when prisons were true “reformatories” and “penitentiaries,” the conference revealed. Facilities are made worse through dangerous overcrowding in service to what Dean Hall has called “one of the scandals of our country”: a powerful “prison-industrial complex” made more powerful thanks to decades of the so-called “War on Drugs,” which has jailed large proportions of some low-income urban communities for even low-impact narcotics-related crimes.

The effects of this cycle over time have been devastating—especially for African Americans, who account for 85 percent of the incarcerated in the United States. Prisoners’ lives are profoundly changed and challenged by their experience of incarceration, often for the worse, with violence

and verbal or emotional abuse as well as sexual exploitation not unknown to occur. Worse still, two-thirds of the children of prisoners will spend time behind bars one day themselves. Employment is also a challenge; although it’s been said that “nothing stops a bullet like a job,” nothing stops would-be employers like a prison record. Going back to prison after an unsuccessful re-entry to society remains a significant risk for the District’s more than 8,000 returning citizens each year.

It follows that attention to these issues “is not just good Bible. It’s good sociology,” as Trulear notes, citing indications that recidivism is sharply reduced after visits with clergy—with the catch being that chaplaincy positions have been slow to fill and fast to disappear in an age of increasing budget cuts. Visits from family members are also effective in reducing the recidivism rate. “The Book of Acts says ‘there will be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth,’” Trulear observes, “and for most of the Church the prison is the uttermost parts of the earth—but if that’s your grandson who’s locked up, it’s Jerusalem.”

In Trulear’s view, Christians should treat prisoners no differently from any other group of “the least of these” mentioned in Matthew 25. “You don’t have a ‘sick ministry’ at your church,” he notes pointedly. “So why does a church need a ‘prison ministry’? We need to mobilize congregations to reach into prisons the same way they reach into the hospital by following bloodlines, family lines, friendship lines, and relationship lines. There may be need for specialized ministries—we need chaplains, people to go in and volunteer—but this is the ministry of a whole congregation. And when one in three African-American males between the ages of 20 and 34 is either in prison, jail, probation, or parole, this is everybody’s ministry.”

Silver Linings

Dr. Trulear helps bring the message of prisoners’ real spiritual needs to congregations near and far, in part through the work of his organization Healing Communities. But long-term problems in the criminal justice system, generated in part by cultural biases now baked into law, are no match for any one individual or group. Nor are policymakers, whose assessments and priorities often ignore prisoners’ perspectives, the silver-bullet solution either. An axiomatic principle taken from the civil rights era, “Don’t talk about us without us,” remains vital, as does collaboration to make marginalized voices heard.

The saving grace of the Re-Entry conference concept—what gives hope for continued dialogue and effective results—is that its participants come from a wide range of faith communities, advocacy groups, and institutions already at work within the penal system. Their presence together at the conference is a testament to the connections of Ford Rowan, a Cathedral Congregation member with more than three decades of experience in crisis management and conflict resolution. He has devoted himself for several years to tackling some of the most insidious (and, for all that, often most overlooked) challenges facing society—with uncommon force and charisma. Patricia Johnson, who from the Cathedral’s office of canon missioner spearheads a broad array of social justice ministries, makes that much clear: “This conference could never have happened without Ford’s dedication and the strong relationships he’s built over the years,” she says.

Part of the gathering’s ongoing and future work, as Rowan conceives it, will be to reimagine the system of old-school “retributive justice” that has trapped so many Americans and has paralyzed so many communities, replacing it wherever possible with an ideal of what is known as restorative justice. For participant David Deal, who spoke in the conference’s first panel, “Restorative justice gives a different angle of attack on a very knotty problem. The focus is not on what happened,” he says, “but on who was affected—not ‘how do we punish’ but ‘how we might repair the harm.’” It has an even larger impact on communities when put in practice systematically, through the work of regional centers for restorative justice that, as he notes, now comprise “a huge number of resources that are just a phone call away.”

A Plentiful Harvest

As many conference participants have found, an especially powerful tool in faith-based outreach to prisoners—and one that provides a critical lifeline to returning citizens—operates on the assumption that prisoners need an example of consoling and centering faith more than didactics of dogma and doctrine; more than this, it acknowledges prisoners’ need to minister and bear witness to the spiritual growth of one another—a perfect example of the “not about us without us” principle at work.

This form of ministry is Kairos, which started in 1976 under the leadership of Tom Johnson, an attorney who wanted to bring the tradition of a three-day spiritual retreat (known as Cursillo) to prisons. Before his death on June 10 this year, Kairos had expanded to 400 institutions and 55 ministries in 32 states and 9 countries throughout the world. Nancy Stockbridge, a long-term Kairos organizer for the Cathedral, and Cathedral Head Verger Claude “Duke” DuTeil, have over the years been two of nearly 40,000 Kairos volunteers. DuTeil, a volunteer since 1998, bears enthusiastic witness to the impacts he has seen. “It’s a four-day retreat held twice a year with weekly accountability meetings afterwards,” he says, “and it focuses on four areas of forgiveness: self, others, God, and society. The goal is really ecumenical—we’re just trying to plant a seed—so we stick to the areas of overlap between denominations and faiths.” As a result of Kairos, recidivism declines from 65 percent to 15 percent and violence dramatically decreases. “It’s amazing to watch what happens,” he says.

Kairos becomes even more effective when joined by other forms of ministry and advocacy, from buying stamps (which can be exorbitant for prisoners paid less than 25 cents an hour) and paying for clothes to changing legislation to decrease hiring discrimination. One of the largest tasks facing Ford Rowan and the other Re-Entry organizers, in fact, is an “asset map” of ministries currently being provided across the greater Washington metropolitan area. The ultimate goal would be for conference co-sponsors, including the Cathedral, to serve as clearing-houses for individuals attempting to learn more and to help out with prisoners. “‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few,’ we like to say,” DuTeil notes, quoting the Gospel of Luke. “There’s really something for everyone to do who wants to get involved.”

Bishop Magness would concur.

“I learn by doing,” Magness said, “and I can tell you that the faith community has a pretty important role to play in the life of prison residents, whether inside or outside. I have discovered from my visits to prisons that residents there have both inner lives and real spiritual needs. In fact the depth of the spirituality that I saw inside actually shook
me, because I’m not seeing that in our parishes and churches.”

Despite the impression that the spiritual lives and needs of prisoners had made on him, Magness went years before identifying himself as an advocate. “I remember visiting prisons in the past and thinking ‘somebody ought to do something about that; somebody ought to take care of that’ when I first encountered the pastoral needs of prisoners,” he admitted.

A turning point in the bishop’s life took place in 2011, when a returning citizen he had met at a correctional facility in Alderson, W.V., called his office. The
woman calling had no one waiting for her outside
the prison yard. She did remember, however, that
when Magness administered the sacrament of confirmation to her he had pledged “to do all in [his] power to support her in her life in Christ.”

At that moment, he noted, the solution to all of
the problems he had long identified came to him.
“‘Someone should,’” he said, “changed into ‘I ought.’
The question ‘Who can?’ turned into ‘Here I am, send me’ (1 Samuel 3:4).”