How to Start a Prison Ministry   Looking For Trolls & Truth  
Trolls & Truth, Redux   I was in prison … The church behind bars  


How to Start a Prison Ministry ~ by Frances Jett

Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow captives. (Hebrews 13:3)

Building and maintaining prisons is one of the fastest growing "industries" in the United States. More and more men, women, and children are being incarcerated each day, forcing communities to build additional jail cells. Beyond the issues of how to prevent people from entering the prison system is how to care for those already behind bars.

The theological foundation for the United Methodist Church to be in prison ministry starts with mandates by Christ to be in ministry by "proclaiming freedom to the captives" (Luke 4:18), and we are all summoned to "remember those in prison as if you were their fellow captives" (Hebrews 13:3). Jesus identified himself as the one who was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, a prisoner - and invites us to ministries of nurture, outreach, and witness.

John Wesley defined true religion as love shed abroad in our hearts, as love for God and neighbor. Wesley considered regular visitations of and friendship with the poor and imprisoned as essential to discipleship as prayer and Holy Communion. Ministry with offenders and victims, then, is not optional; it is mandatory if the church is to be the church. As a sign, foretaste, and instrument of God's reign, the church has no choice but to cast its lot with the ostracized, victimized, and marginalized.

The next step is to establish structure. Find out who in your faith community is already involved in prison ministry or reform activities. The final step for the prison ministry coordinator is to provide support. Collect and distribute articles and news about prison ministry. Maintain a file of resources and training opportunities on prison ministry, prison reform, and restorative justice. Considering that most of those incarcerated are released into society, making that transition a healthy one is important to the welfare of all people.

Not everyone in your faith community will feel comfortable visiting a prison, or participating in some form of restorative justice; those persons can participate in other ways. Since less than 20 percent of inmates receive visitors regularly, writing letters to the incarcerated and their families is appreciated. Enabling persons to take part of the ministry at level that is comfortable for them is extremely important.

 The Church needs to understand that our ministry is with prisoners, crime victims, and their families and the community at large. This encompasses a concern for the entire criminal justice system, especially persons employed within the structure of that system. The ministry of the church is both pastoral and prophetic, seeking both to heal those who have been wounded and to transform those structures that inflict those wounds.


Looking For Trolls & Truth Jimmy Dorrell  May/June 2007

The Wittenburg Door Interview  

JIMMY DORRELL: It's based on the premise that often times those who are marginalized, the poor, are rejected by our culture. Really, in the kingdom of God, they have eternal truths that we need to learn from. And that's not my view, that's the Biblical view, we believe.

     You look at the teachings of Christ, so many times would come when He'd point to a widow who was giving her last two mites, or a leper who thanked Him or a tax collector who was rejected or ... a prostitute. So it was through these uncommon, rejected folk of our culture that really some of the most important truths that Jesus taught were given to us. And the reminder, alternatively to that, that the very ones who were doing the teaching most often were the religious like us who come from a culture of superficial religion—we have a lot of words and Bible memory and church-dom—and yet the core value of the kingdom of God is not understood by us as well. We become sorta the flip-flop, where we need to learn to listen to the people who we often times think we understand and we're going to "go help those poor people." We have this almost sickened idea of charity today.

DOOR: Um, most Christians are uncomfortable going up to a homeless guy and saying, "Hello! We're the Pharisees!"

DORRELL: The scarier part is, there's a sort of half truth. Those church folks are usually good people. They're going to give turkeys at Thanksgiving and they're going to have a special offering and they're going to have benevolence at the door when people come in. But our approach is somewhat of a condescending arrogance. Because we see the poor as people who "don't get it," "they haven't worked hard enough," "If they tried hard enough, they'd do better." So instead of this compassion, it's arrogance. "So don't bother me, yeah, we'll help you." Granted, there's going to be 10 percent of the people who come to our churches who are going to take advantage or who have manipulated. So it's not like there is not precedent for that. But we forget that the majority of the poor are very humble people, they are poor in spirit, they have been broken

When you read the book of Luke, Luke has a clear reality that the rich are considered the greedy in the culture and the poor are considered the humble who understand the kingdom. When you look at the writings of Paul, he can't even imagine, I don't think, in his teachings this division between rich and poor; black, white and brown; male and female. The very separation of any difference by class or race or social economics is in fact a denial of the Gospel.

DORRELL: And yet, somehow, though we might could agree that there is some truth to that, we don't make the changes in our church systems that even begin to address it. We just kinda apologize and say, "Yeah, it's not all it should be." So, in our apathy to do anything about it, the Church in America is suffering. I think the Church in America is in trouble. The Western church is losing 3,500 people a week, people who walk away from?

DORRELL: At the same time, here's the good news, Christianity is growing by more than that in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We are no longer the center of Christianity. Christianity is exploding, but it is not exploding in the West. We're losing people in our culture. It's because our churches are not speaking anything different to the culture than what people already see in the business place. We're voiceless because we're not speaking to the cultural message. We won't recognize the power, the prejudice, the lack of economic fairness to the poor because we are caught up in ourselves and the church.

     So we don't want to make our parishioners upset so they'll stop giving, so we keep doing it and get very careful about what we say. The spokesman behind the pulpit has, unfortunately, become complicit with the culture. We've lost our voice in many ways. So the unbelieving world isn't interested in our messages anymore. We aren't saying anything differently and they can see we aren't living any differently. Unfortunately, we live in a world that only thinks of the poor at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Many of us gather some canned goods [and]some old, worn, out-of-style clothes and pat ourselves on the back for doing something for the needy. That's not charity—that's giving our leftovers away. Real compassion is getting out of my place of safety and security and entering the pain of the world.

DOOR: Trolls & Truth addresses some of those inadequacies.

DORRELL: I hope it's not said in any kind of anger or vindictiveness, because it's just the Gospel. It's just these basic truths. We're not asking the Church to help out the poor more, we're asking the Church to learn from the poor, to do Church with the poor. So this [book] is about what we at Church under the Bridge have learned about doing church with the poor, that the poor are part of our DNA, they are not folks to get ministered to.

DOOR: Are you saying, "If the poor you will always have with you, we might as well use them"?

DORRELL: Let me explain it this way: What we have done with the poor is, what we have not recognized is, if we really believed what the Scripture said—the poor, the ex-con, the mentally ill—all have gifts just like we do that God have given us for the church. But somehow we think that those gifts are for the seminary-trained or the special Bible teachers. Clearly, if you want to build somebody's self-esteem, it's not giving them money and helping them out through the next crisis. It is giving them value, it is in helping them identify the gifts they have and giving them the confidence the world has beaten out of them. We say, "Y'know, they don't have anything to give, they're just nobodies"—based on the fact that they just came out of prison or they're a recovering drug addict.  The church should be saying to them, "Boy, we need you just as much as we need the professional clergy. We need you to get in here and use your gifts to bring the good news to other folks and to speak in a way I can not speak because you understand a world I don't understand."

     If Jesus is going to get in the face of the religious rich young ruler, how much more is He going to get into our face—because we have so much more than he had? If we don't recognize the need for those downtown, struggling churches to partner with, to become friends with—and I'm not just saying to swap the pulpit once a year with the pastor. That's a fine thing to do, but that's not what we're talking about here. We're not talking about some kind of superficial remedy, but how to develop a relationship.     

     To me, the most powerful church ever was that Antioch church in the Scriptures where Paul had this group of six different men who ended up being leaders of that church. And when you look at their ethnic background, there was black, white and brown; there were people who came out of Herod's Court and there were people coming from the Jewish tradition. He had this incredible blend. So, a church that is going to be valid has got to have a pastoral staff that is a reflection of that theology. And I don't just mean hire a black guy to work with the black people in the neighborhood, which is sort of another issue. But again, our struggle in the church today is, we're not asking those questions. The church is silently diminishing, and the power and strength of our past, for a lot of reasons and not just that reason—post-modernity, cultural shifts—but the world isn't going to come to our churches very much because we aren't saying very much.

     The problem was, in those days, I became pretty cynical. I grew up in the institutional church, I have a seven-year Sunday School attendance pin. I knew the Bible verses, I was president of the youth group, did all those things, did seminary. And yet came to the realization—particularly as we were overseas, in the midst of the leper slums in Calcutta and places where we worked, seeing the brokenness of poverty and people in need—that I had become complicit with the system as well.     We've treated the pastor as a holy man, and the whole Protestant Reformation—particularly the radical Reformation—was to say, "He's no more important than any other believer." We've got the reality that "I'm no more important than you and you are no more important than me, we're brother and sisters in the journey. I need you and you need me." That's a structural problem. We say that, and yet if the pastor doesn't come to visit the sick person in the hospital, "Fire that man" because that's what we paid him for. Something is wrong here.

I don't believe in the clergy/laity split—we're all Christian. There are special gifts that need special training, no doubt about it, but while I may have some gift and you not, I need you and you need me. I think there's also the missiological issue. Most churches today live in fear of lack of resources, the "what ifs," and have forgotten that our primary call is to "give ourselves away." We're not here for ourselves. We're here to bring good news to the poor. So instead of having a servant "lose my life" mindset, we have a fortress mentality. "Build these walls, protect these walls, don't let anybody in."

DOOR: Fort God!

DORRELL: Absolutely! So in fact, since it is a fortress, let's make it comfortable for those inside. And so we spend so much money on the needs of our own people, an ever-growing amount, while I understand that less than one percent of all church budgets go to help the poor themselves. Less than one percent! All that to say ... who is going to stand up in the business meeting and say, "Something's wrong here. Isn't our call here to be losing ourselves?" Overall, there are 30,000 children who died today of hunger-related causes. Isn't someone going to ask why we aren't spending more money in our budgets on those kids instead of another chandelier?

DORRELL: That's what James was saying: people who are praying for the next meal pray much better than I do. People who are in need are so much more trusting in God than we are. We have a lot to learn from them in that department. So many people think that in dealing with the poor, the main way to help them out is financial or material needs, food, clothing and shelter. Certainly that's true, its got to be a part of it. What we forget is, the dignity means [that] they are people who want to play as well.

     I was a youth director for 11 years, and what I found out was these poor beaten-up bodies of the poor are just kids who've grown up. In fact, two or three kids are people I knew in the state home years ago. We go play touch football after church a lot, or go to a Texas Rangers game, or have a cookout; that's where ministry with the poor, the dancing and playing, is relationship. Food is important, but survivalism gets old, they need to play and laugh. And so many times their options are limited. They are whole people and they need what we need.

     Every year at Mission Waco we do a talent show—actually, we call it the variety show because it is so bad—and this guy named Patrick always sings "Fresh Prince of Bel Air." It takes 20 seconds, nobody understands a word he says. And you are just on the floor laughing. But that's the dignity. Everybody has something to give. We've made the singer in the church a professional who has to sound just right. Heck no, I want someone who may mess up half the notes but his heart's in it. So that's the part, the real life of play, laughter and joy


Trolls & Truth, Redux

Part II of The Wittenburg Door Interview with Jimmy Dorrell

May/June 2007

Rev. Jimmy. Dorrell's done extraordinary work with the homeless in Waco, Tex. In just a few short years, he's spear-headed the construction of a number of buildings to house and feed the homeless, set up work projects to hire them, and even established a restaurant operated by homeless people from around the world. His Church Under the Bridge—smack dab under Interstate 35 next to the Baylor University campus, attracts hundreds of worshippers—from students to homeless to well-known business leaders..

THE WITTENBURG DOOR: Is there ever a point where the Church puts itself out of business? Or is that only when the Kingdom of God arrives?

JIMMY DORRELL: Put ourselves out of business only in the sense that the more you open your doors, the more people with needs come in, and you have more work. So there is a sense that we aren't really taking care of business, we're taking care of making sure the sanctuary is clean and the lawn is done, not "How do we create development, how do we create jobs for poor people. And again, I want to make sure that we are doing church WITH the poor. It's development, not relief. Sick charity that says we give to the food bank and the clothing closet.

      It's asking how can the men in the Sunday school class who are the CEOs of the businesses out there create jobs for the poor that give them dignity. It's about dignity, not "Let's just give them more food." We've created a system where the poor feel they have no value, they have to manipulate the system to get more food. We should be giving them the dignity to say, "I have to get up to go to work tomorrow." But those same business men are sometimes the very same ones who are paying their people minimum wages and not living Christian ethics in the marketplace.

     Now it's not just a matter of saying "I can't help you out, I'll give more money to the church, I'll give more money to the food bank." But now you're talking about my business and my profits and the profits of my people. Instead of having a Christian ethic drive you. It's not a matter of not making money; you can still have a Christian ethic and make money. It's how you use those resources.
      Our culture says, "I'll go out and buy into the ethics of the work place, and we'll work harder and make the money and give some of it to those poor people." That's not what I'm saying. No, we want Christian businessmen and women who are running businesses who have ethical values in them, that say "The buck is not the bottom line, it is the way your employees feel loved and affirmed, and encouraged

DOOR: How many Churches Under the Bridge are there now, around the country? Are you, in essence, the pilot CUB? Other folks inspired by the message of radical inclusivity?

DORRELL: This is one of those things that God birthed it for us. We went down to do a Bible study for five homeless men about 14 years ago, and we took them to breakfast and hung out with them and they asked us back, and five became seven and seven became 10 and all of a sudden a Baylor kid walked across the street to see what we were doing. We didn't go down there to start a church, it just sort of emerged. And that's been part of the joy of it. This was not some entrepreneurial effort, this was God's gift to us. But it's the church I've wanted to be a part of all my life. That insatiable desire inside to be a part of something valid. It happened, after years of prayer and waiting, and not something we manipulated. Because of it, though, we have heard of three or four other groups start similar things: CUB in Austin, one in San Antonio we have nothing to do with, that we don't know anything about.

DORRELL: Absolutely not, just a sense of call that there's something right about it. The growth of the church, I think... We have 325 people that meet 51 weeks a year under the bridge, when it's miserably hot, it's inconvenient, there's pigeons pooping if you get too close to the back row. There's a sense of chaos. Janet and I never imagined there would be 325 people coming under a bridge each week. That just fascinates us. We had no intention of it being a bigger deal. But we're finding people are hungry for something that is speaking louder than the prevailing culture. So they will put up with the other things.

So anyway, I think the average Christian is going to make their decision today based on "What's best for me and my family." That's not a kingdom principal. You don't want to go out and say "Oh yeah, let's put our children in harms' way." But we bless the missionaries who go to the far land, but we think, "How stupid to go down and work in the city." That somehow, that's not alright.

DOOR: "We'll go to Borneo, but not go to Detroit."

DORRELL: Like the guy used to say, "We'll go to the blacks out in Africa but we won't go to the blacks downtown." It's that whole culture of fear that has been created so I can justify with religious sanction going to the suburbs for that placid Christianity stuff while the real needs are out among the broken people of the world that God has called us to serve, that's just too much. Or, we'll go and do our mission for the year and salve that guilt, so it's over until we do it the next year.
      We don't understand that whole incarnational living, that Jesus became a man and dwelt among us—that is the most powerful statement of the whole Gospel. That God moved in and He had no place to lay His own head. He's one among us, not "come down and preach the word and then return to the corner of your safety."

DOOR: Jesus, the original homeless preacher?

DORRELL: We use a brochure than sometimes talks about that. The key piece is the incarnation, that he was called a friend of sinners, he's hanging out with people who are rejected. That's the incarnational piece.

      One of the things we don't talk about much in our churches these days is Zacchaeus, who I think is a hero. He's this little tax collector who climbs a tree; he's the only person in the whole New Testament who talks about the transformed lifestyle. He stands up and gives back four times the money to the people he took it from, half his income goes to the poor—radical conversion affects the pocketbook, it affects the lifestyle. It takes everything. You don't hear that preached very often.

      The bottom line is, You can't be a Christian and not have it affect the way you do your money. And yet we've created this sliced, Greek-compartmentalized Christianity that says "This is my little effort." Hebrews is not like that, Hebrews is holistic. "This is my little spiritual life over here, this is what we do to take care of that. But this is my work life and this is my play life," which is so theologically bankrupt. I got all the way through seminary without hearing about the call to the poor. It's all over the Bible, but I couldn't see it. It was like my glasses were too foggy to see except what I saw through my cultural eyes.

DOOR: If you've ever had to do a cram reading of the four Gospels in like under an hour, you come away with two impressions. Jesus hated lawyers and Jesus loved the poor.

DORRELL: There is a lot of talk in the churches today about "social justice," but there is a big difference between talking about it and having relationships with people. There is a secular culture today that says we're concerned for the poor and the systemic evils, but my question is "Name me your friends who are poor, or struggling, that you relate to on a regular basis." It is the relationships in and among the poor that validate our calls. What happened at Mission Waco and what happened at Church Under the Bridge is that all of a sudden we're here, our people need jobs, oh yeah, how can we do this?

DOOR: So, it's "Do all your friends have their acts together versus how many have messy lives?"

DORRELL: Yes, but I'd add, average middle class people may have equal amounts of messes, but we hide it. We don't see the mess because we're much more adept at hiding our sin than the poor. They poor are unpretentious.


I was in prison … The church behind bars

Christian Century,  Oct 3, 2006  by Jason Byassee

IN ONE OF those neglected corners of scripture that must scare those brave enough to think about it, Jesus promises an unpleasant future for those who would not visit him in prison: "Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me" (Matt. 25:45). Threats aside, Lovett Weems of Wesley Theological Seminary has suggested that renewals of the church have usually been accompanied by increased care for those in prison. With well over 2 million people imprisoned in the United States--more than in any other nation at any time in world history--the church has ample opportunity for renewal.

The trouble is that the church is not much interested. Charles Colson of Prison Fellowship recently remarked offhandedly that he has been trying to get people interested in prison ministry for over 30 years, with less success than he'd like. Much of the church seems to agree with the surrounding culture that those in prison deserve to be there, and the more they suffer, the better--end of story.

Think again about the numbers: more than 2 million. Normally when the church takes note of areas of population growth, it plots how to serve the growing community. In the 1990s, the fastest growing category of housing in the U.S. was prison cells, Weems reports (in Leadership in the Wesleyan Spirit). But we rarely see congregations or denominational bureaucrats scrambling to meet the needs of the prison community.

If we are unwilling to go to prison to meet Jesus, Jesus is willing to come from prison to meet us. Many of the 2 million are committed Christians, often with dramatic stories of a conversion that took place behind bars. They want also to serve, and often do. (See related stories by Kenneth Carder and Troy Rienstra on p. 25 and p. 27.)

Jens Soering is an up-and-coming Catholic lay theologian. He is also a convict, sentenced to life for murdering his girlfriend's parents when he was a freshman at the University of Virginia. Imprisoned in Virgina, this son of a German diplomat immersed himself in the riches of Catholic thought and tradition. His first book, The Way of the Prisoner (Lantern, 2003), deals with centering prayer and abounds with examples of how ordinary Christians can practice what ancient monks did in their cells.

Soering's prison context gives his work extraordinary moral energy. Every line matters, for this man's life is slipping away in prison. Unfortunately, his repeated discussions of his own history and conversion begin to feel like a sort of personal advocacy, as though his chief hope in writing is to gain his freedom. (Soering maintains his innocence. A former Virginia state deputy attorney general backs his case, pointing out flaws in the prosecution that Soering's lawyer, since disbarred for incompetence, failed to challenge.)

Soering's book on centering prayer has an evident wisdom about it, as when he writes on how to breathe while praying: "With each inhalation and exhalation, I connect with all of God's beautiful creation, literally taking into myself the same air that swirls through my friends' and my enemies' lungs."

The most memorable portions of Way of the Prisoner and of Soering's second book, An Expensive Way to Make Bad People Worse: An Essay on Prison Reform from an Insider's Perspective (Lantern, 2004), are the descriptions of prison life. While he was jailed in England where he had gone after the murders and from which he was extradited--Soering's wrist was broken twice by the same prison guard. Soering says that he was nearly raped once and that prison guards nearly always look the other way on such occasions, as though prisoners deserve whatever they get. Citing the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Soering says that the prevalence of male rape in prison is such that more men than women are raped in this country. Given the high incidence of HIV, Soering calls this "the death penalty on the installment plan."