What if the answer is … prison?

Ministry: n.Late 14c., “function of a priest,” from Old French menistere “service, ministry; position, post, employment,” and directly from Latin ministerium “office, service, attendance, ministry,” from minister). Began to be used 1916 as name of certain departments in British government. see also: servant minister.

My parish is in the midst of a sort of jobs fair for the social outreach ministries in the church, and let me tell you there are many to choose from. In large and active congregations the group usually has more ministries and activities going on than you can possibly hit, all in one week. And if you are not in a congregation, you are surrounded by tons of local and global causes that would love your attention and action.

How do you choose?

This is where we step into those strange religious words like “calling,” that maybe non-religious people don’t use in quite the same way. Religious people are called by some greater vision to go into a particular field and plant the proverbial wheat.

People who do not practice a particular religious faith do this as a matter of some cause that they are magnetically attracted to. The cause speaks to them, or they have participated (like cancer patients who later do work for cancer support organizations.) Maybe it’s a topic that fascinates them. Or it’s a cause that is fun to work in support of because their friends are there, and it’s a group effort. Not to mention the new friends gained when anyone becomes involved in a ministry.

What if you’re not feeling called to do a certain kind of help? I have no answer for that one because the answer comes from inside you. Maybe it’s a cause that you can help with because you are there in the place where you are, in the time that you have, with the tools you carry. Even things like helping mow a neighbor’s lawn while they’re sick, or bringing over food and flowers to somebody down the street or in your building. That’s a calling, too, whether you hear it at the time or not.

None of the above includes simply writing a check to feel as if you have done your part.

Yes, there are many organizations which most need our money to be of immediate help. I’m thinking of Red Cross disaster relief when folks start sending thousands of toys for displaced children. That means the Red Cross has to pay more money to deal with those material donations. Cash – in the time of immediate disaster – is what those organizations most need to get the proverbial boots on the ground, lights, potable water, food, to the people who need it most.

A displaced family cannot – in good conscience – eat a Teddy bear.

One group in the parish that I have a passing contact with is our ministry to folks who are in prison, focusing on a couple of state correctional facilities within driving distance. I have been so busy over the years with my own list of helpful chores that I appreciated the prison ministry being there, and had to say “not my calling,” and keep working. (Of course it’s easier to say that when there’s a well-formed group of volunteers to keep a particular activity from floundering.)

One of the works I add my help to is the prayer chain. It’s a very simple thing to do and works especially well for those of us who are house bound and can’t get out and do physical, laborious work. The minister who leads the group sends out an email each month of the main points of remembrance (on Monday we pray for our ministers, on Tuesday for the Campus ministry, etc.) Those never change.

We get ongoing personal requests in that email and also individually throughout the month as new ones come in. The only information we have on personal prayer requests is a name and a situation. “Please pray for Mary who lost her mother this week,” etc. The people involved to not need to be members (we call them communicants) of our parish.

One doesn’t need to belong to any particular club to pray, or to be prayed for.

Earlier this year, we started getting weekly emails from a parishioner who works with our prison ministries, and she sends a list each week in the same format: an inmate’s first name, and a situation. That is all we need for prayer to happen.

I took these into account and did the same prayers I always have. Lately, the situations started speaking to me of the great job of humanity we have, even when facing inhuman situations. I’m speaking of the moral fight inside of “praying for” a thief or a murderer, or a drug dealer. It’s so easy for me to see the crime, and have a preconceived image of the criminal, and somehow forget that – in some of these cases – there is a person behind that facade of badness who is asking for our help, no matter how simple. Just a prayer.

I’m sharing the ones from this week’s list, but just the situations. I’ll give them all a fictitious name. Remember as you read these, all of the people on this list are for-real in prison. They cannot simply walk free and take any sort of action. Someone must walk for them:

  • Jesus – whose mother died.
  • Jesus – who hasn’t heard for some time how his children are doing.
  • Jesus – still in administrative segregation pending his disciplinary hearing.
  • Jesus – who will be released and reunited with his family on Monday.  His resolves are to get a job, take care of his family, and get into church. Please pray for him as he continues on his journey.
  • Jesus – who is facing the possibility that he will never be released.

 *Thank you so much for your prayers.*

Did you see what I did there? With the names?

The ones who grabbed my attention most and brought me deeper into these weekly lists are the “may never get out again” or “has found a relationship with God and needs help with that” or “wants to make amends.”

It’s not my place to judge these folks in any way, or decide if they’re telling the truth, or to think anything about their ongoing or future punishments.

My job is simply to pray.

Sure, that’s the easy way out of social responsibility, yet I can be active and responsible in the other works I do. This calling to prayer is more simple, and more heart-and-soul focused.

My job is simply to pray.

Who knew that by doing one activity, I would become at least spiritually connected to another that was on the list of not my ministry? I still won’t be the first in line to sign up for prison ministry (it’s still not my calling, and I have tools and skills used elsewhere for other just as worthy causes.) I love and appreciate all who do this difficult and sometimes dangerous job. For them, and all other ministries, activities, outreaches, and missions of the universal  church,

from my simplicity, I simply pray.
Some days, prayer is enough.

Keep the faith!
 – Amen




This entry is dedicated to my great friend Rev. Martha who was so very involved in the prison ministries at our parish. We were great friends, and talked many hours about the things we are put here to do, and how to do it.

Fly big, and rest easy, dear friend.




*The feature image for this article is an icon called “Jesus of the Maryknoll” by br. Robert Lenz.






The Poetry of Radical Welcome

We do not speak of politics on these pages because political debate and that which is a pause into sacred time rarely overlap.

The exception would be when some smoothed-down debate leads us closer to that which is most sacred in our lives and souls.

Immigration Reform is a hot button that we will not push today.

Instead, take a reminder of what the topic once was, in another time of us and them. Remember that our country – so wild and young – was a place of great welcome, and a shining universe of great opportunity.

That opportunity towards others should never be replaced with greed, hate, and fear.

Colossus of Rhodes - ruinsIf all this talk of immigration confuses you, here is the reminder in the means of a poem written in 1883 by American poet Emma Lazarus.The poem reflects back on the great Colossus of Rhodes, a braggingly grand statue that was one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world, so tall and gradiose that the legs stretched across the entrance to the port. She was writing of our young and wild America that was nothing like that. No brags, back then. Just facts.

Thus the title of her poem, The New Colossus.

In 1903, the poem was made part of the Statue of Liberty, in New York City. When you think now of walls and fences and deporting immigrants, think of the words of Emma Lazarus.

Everything else in the conversation is politics, and contains nothing sacred worth pulling us away from our callings as Americans to make our common world better.

Be young and wild. Learn the deepest meaning of radical welcome!

Keep the faith!
 – Amen


The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What if Gay Kids Had A Church That Loved Them? – Thoughts on Radical Welcome

This article is a reprint from the author’s blog, and his article was previously published by Huffington Post. (The link to the original is in the article’s title, below.)  It asks important and searching questions full of the kind of “what if” that isn’t pie-in-the-sky rhetoric. He is asking “what if” in a way that sends parishes, churches, whole denominations into prayerful discernment on what can be done to be as accepting and loving as Western Christian churches are taught in the Gospels.

Christ spoke of the great treasure of our children:

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

And not just the little ones, the rug rats, the smalls, the kids. He taught of a universal welcome, of a radical welcome such was was described in Genesis 18 as Abraham greeted the three strangers with all he could do for them.

Our communal assignment in these matters is to be a great river of the widest, most welcoming people we can be. Welcome is our first work. Behind that and of much lesser importance are acceptance and understanding. We do not have to necessarily accept another’s life or views to make them welcome among us. Conversation cannot happen when the other side of the discussion is banished to the other side of a locked door.

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2

Open your arms, open your doors as you also open your hearts.
Keep the faith!



What If Gay Kids Had a Church That Loved Them?

By Derek Penwell

In anticipation of the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and GA-1327—Becoming a People of Welcome and Grace to All —here’s a reprint of a Huffington Post article I wrote.

When I got to the office yesterday, I had a voicemail from a young man I’ve never met before. The message began, “My name is Benjamin. You don’t know me, but one of your colleagues referred you to me.”

He went on to say that he’d done some research on the church where I work, and the ministry we’re involved in advocating for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) people. He wanted me to know how much he appreciated our efforts, and how encouraging it is to hear about a church that actually cares for folks who’ve traditionally experienced only heartache at the hands of the religious establishment.

Felt good. Nice to have your work affirmed by a stranger … unsolicited. Put a smile on my face.

He proceeded to relate a bit of his story. He came out to his parents when he was twelve. Being religiously conservative, they did what they believed best—they put him in “reparative therapy”—”pray away the gay.” The whole thing damaged him so badly that he’s assiduously avoided church ever since. I could hear the bitterness in his voice.

Over a very short period of time, I went from feeling, perhaps, a little too self-satisfied at the initial compliment to feeling awful for this young man’s trauma.

Then he said something that struck me as both profoundly sad and strangely hopeful: “I can only wonder how my life would have been different if there’d been a church around that had loved me for who God created me to be, instead of trying to change me from what it feared I represent.”

I started thinking about the Suicide Prevention Workshop we held at the church two weeks ago. Turns out LGBT young people are two and a half times more likely to contemplate suicide than their straight counterparts. More frighteningly, I found out that those same LGBT youth are eight times more likely to attempt suicide.

Why the significantly higher rates?

Bullying, of course. But bullying is something that frequently happens … to a lot of kids. Perhaps even more deeply than bullying, though, LGBT kids experience rejection and isolation at the hands of the very people kids are supposed look to to love them and keep them safe.

Their parents kick them out of the house at alarming rates, making homelessness among LGBT youth twice as likely as among straight youth. The churches they attend often brutalize them in the name of “love.”

Young people are dying at an alarming rate, in order to allow some folks to retain the purity of their personal sense of integrity. That this integrity costs the lives of children is apparently a price they are more than willing to pay.

I realize that the motive for this stringent vision of purity is rooted in what its possessors would term love. And, I should point out, there is something to be said for saying “no” in the name of love—addicts, for example, often require the love found in “no.” And those who affirm reparative therapy, I suspect, would prefer to see same gender sexual orientation as an addiction to be conquered.

Unfortunately, though, reparative therapy is not “AA for the gay.” For one thing, AA actually works, whereas reparative therapy, at least according to the medical and scientific community, does not.1 But the problem has less to do with the fact that reparative therapy is ineffective, than with the fact that it does damage.2

LGBT young people having to find their way without the people and institutions charged with caring for them struck me today as I spoke with a pastor about his church. It seems there are some young adults in the church who would like to have conversation about how the church can become a place of welcome to LGBT people. Apparently, the older people in the church think such a conversation would be dangerous, afraid people will get angry and leave. After all, there are so many more important things in the world.

As the pastor spoke, I thought about Benjamin. I thought about all the LGBT young people going through hell because the people they trust to watch out for them have belittled and abandoned them. And I wondered how life would be different if there were churches around that loved these kids for who God created them to be, instead of trying to change them from what church people fear they represent.

I pray to God we find out.