The American Baptist Churches Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) has taken the bold step of encouraging its 5,300 congregations to live out Jesus’ mandate to visit those in U.S. jails and prisons (Matthew 25:36).
The national coordinator of prisoner re-entry and aftercare ministry, Fela Barrueto, has been commissioned to build a network of lay and ordained chaplains already serving their communities as re-entry specialists.
As a former prison chaplain and creator of a prison ministry, Maine Prison Chaplaincy Corp., I am privileged to be included in that network.
Driven entirely by local conditions and needs, the ABHMS network offers a unique model representing a wide range of social, spiritual, ethnic and cultural perspectives and contexts.
Meeting personally and online, we wrestle together over matters such as:
â— Adult and juvenile incarceration
â— Motivating local churches to assume responsibility for this social justice and evangelistic challenge
â— Using our gifts and experiences to prepare others to serve
Twelve of us were privileged in late January to be guests of our partner and brother, Carlos Padilla, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Guayanilla in Puerto Rico.
We found ourselves reaching through the food tray slots of cells in a two-tier segregation unit in Ponce, grasping hands outstretched for help from our God: “Pray for my mom. Pray for my family. Pray for my sister. Pray for my injury. Pray, pray, pray!”
Some of us were dependent on a translator. For others, it was a homecoming.
Carlos’ wife, Ivelisse Rodriquez, and chaplain Monsita Fraticelli led the entire “congregation” in a rousing chorus of praise and worship.
Carlos and Osvaldo Jimenez, New Jersey pastor of Iglesia Bautista Hispana in Morristown and Misión Latina in Ledgewood, preached as only can be done in Hispanic tradition.
“What is unique about the prison culture of Puerto Rico?” I wondered.
On cue, journalist Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times answered my question in an article published on Feb. 8.
Per capita income in beautiful Puerto Rico is around $15,200, “half that of Mississippi, the poorest state” in the U.S., but with soaring living costs, Alvarez reported.
Thirty-seven percent of households receive food stamps, and the utility bills are more than twice that on the U.S. mainland.
With only 41.3 percent of working-age residents employed – one in four of those jobs being in government – Puerto Rico’s professional class is moving stateside.
With the middle and upper-middle class moving to the U.S. and taking jobs with them, the poor have become poorer while the rich have become self-protective behind gated communities.
“In the past eight years, Puerto Rico’s ticker tape of woes has stretched unabated: $70 billion in debt, a 15.4 percent unemployment rate, a soaring cost of living, pervasive crime, crumbling schools and a worrisome exodus of professionals and middle-class Puerto Ricans who have moved to places like Florida and Texas,” Alvarez summarized.
As a result, the dispossessed have become prime candidates for incarceration, as they cannot find jobs and seek other, sometimes illegal, ways to make ends meet.
For example, the prisoners for whom we prayed at the 7,000 resident prison at Ponce were mostly young men, presumably among the unemployed and likely engaged in one of the few growth industries – “narcotrafficking,” the buying and selling of illegal drugs.
While Puerto Rico has its identifiable problems, in every urban and rural community in the U.S. there are unique social conditions to which God has called his church to engage and to remedy.
In recent years, however, the church seems to have turned inward into what author Reggie McNeal refers to as “vendors of religious goods and services” in his book “Missional Renaissance.”
We who have joined together to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ to those citizens returning from our jails and prisons pray and plead that you will find it in your heart to accept this most gratifying mission.
I encourage you to become involved in empowering returning citizens (formerly incarcerated persons) to rise above their circumstances and find in the local community of Christ a love that surpasses all understanding.
Stan Moody is senior pastor of Columbia Street Baptist Church in Bangor, Maine, has served in the Maine state legislature and as a chaplain at Maine State Prison. He is the author of five books, including “Let My People Go: Following Jesus into Our Jails and Prisons.” You can read his other articles on prison reform here, and follow him on Twitter @Stan_Moody.
Editor’s note: “Through the Door” – EthicsDaily.com’s newly released documentary on faith and prisons – explores the initiatives of churches and faith-based organizations in Indiana, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.