Sometimes challenges seem so insurmountable and intransigent that there seems no way to make a positive contribution. How can one person, or a Bible class, or a congregation make any difference at all in the face of issues as huge as world hunger, poverty, child abuse, racism, or unemployment? Or more particularly, how can anyone hope to influence such trends as the continued growth of prison populations, the rate of return to crime, the number of inmates who can never adjust back to productive patterns of community life? These are just too big for us to do anything about. It’s easier to blame, scapegoat, ignore, or deny such overwhelming challenges.
Over the last few years, the members and friends of Nelson Memorial United Methodist Church in Booneville, Missouri, have been collaborating with other community organizations to work with inmates from the Booneville Correctional Center to establish work projects that help integrate inmates into community in healthier, more supportive ways. Volunteers from the church have provided breakfast, devotions, fellowship, lunch, and other support to aid in the rehabilitation of inmates. They have worked alongside inmates on community work sites, and stayed in touch with inmates after they were released. Last week, the church celebrated the culmination of this year’s projects with a dedication service. California (Mo.) United Methodist Church also participates in these Community Service Projects sponsored by the National Organization of Prison Fellowship.
I applaud these congregations for their willingness to move beyond their comfort zones to offer such a ministry that has the potential to transform so many lives. They’ve managed to act with integrity in the face of an overwhelmingly large challenge. Rather than feeling that there is nothing they could do to make a difference, they have chosen to make what difference they can, given the resources and opportunities God has provided them. They are transforming the part of the world given them by God as their mission field.
“They ought to…” “You should…” “If only…”
These are the phrases that ultimately lead us to abandon God’s calling. They foster avoidance of responsibility. They paralyze us. They deflect the insinuation of the Holy Spirit into our own lives. They push us away from the tasks God entrusts to us. They feed a sense of hopelessness.
“I will….” “We can…” “With God’s help….”
These are the phrases that empower us, that give hope, and that encourage faithful response. These open us to the following of Christ and to the strength of the Holy Spirit. These give life. These take us to God, and to the places God would have us go.
“I was a prisoner and you visited me….”
When Jesus spoke those words, his astonished disciples couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. “As much as you did it for the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”
Jesus’ message is pretty clear. No excuses. Just do it. Christ is behind us all the way; Christ is ahead of us in those we serve; Christ is with us each step we take.
As long as everyone thinks nothing can be done, nothing will be done. But when someone begins to show the compassion of Christ, all manner of miracles takes place.
Our congregations do pretty well with some elements of mission and service. As a community of faith, we respond well after disasters. Some of our congregations do well with outreach ministries that provide food, and a few congregations offer an extraordinary ministry with the homeless. I give God thanks for all these good efforts at faithfully serving God by serving people in need.
I pray we find the courage to open ourselves to the grace that propels us even into the places we least want to go, and among the people who may demonstrate the greatest resistance to our message. I pray we may find more and greater ways to follow Christ into our prison systems, correctional centers, and local jails.
How do you and your congregation interpret and follow Jesus’ teaching about visiting those who are in prison? Do you have any ideas you would like to share? What have you found to be helpful in fulfilling this aspect of our calling? What restrains you?
Yours in Christ,