*By Dr. Larry R. Hygh, Jr.
"Our prison system cages people for long periods of time, like a human zoo, and tears them apart from their innocent children," says Pastor Holly Hillman. "So the question a church can ask itself is, 'What are we here to be and do?" Hillman recently helped to plan and was one of the leaders for the Bishop's Consultation on Prison Ministry within the California-Nevada Conference.
The purpose of the consultation, held at the Conference Center in West Sacramento, was for conference leaders in prison ministry to educate conference leadership about the issues and resources related to prison ministry so a vision and strategy can be developed to lead the annual conference into meaningful ministry with those impacted by the prison system. Participants included Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, the Cabinet, the convener for the Compassion and Justice mission focus area, the chair of Mission Service, the chair of Advocacy and Justice, the Conference Lay Leader, and persons from local churches currently involved in prison ministry.
Hillman was introduced to Kairos Prison Ministry International (Kairos) 11 years ago by the Rev. Anne Lau Choy. Since that introduction, she has worked at the federal prison for women in Dublin, and two California prisons in Chowchilla. Kairos is a lay-led, interdenominational Christian ministry in which men and women volunteers bring Christ's love and forgiveness to prisoners and their families. The Kairos programs take the participants on a journey that demonstrates the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. Kairos Prison Ministry is Christian in nature, although no religious affiliation is necessary to be a participant. The programs involve a structured model that includes a weekend experience, followed by guests or participants gathering regularly for accountability, support, and prayer.
Hillman says, "Over and over again we watch inmates enter the gym on Friday afternoon broken, hopeless, filled with shame, and on Monday afternoon they are infused with God's love and forgiveness, eager for everyone they know to meet and embrace the liberating Christ."
The Rev. Scott Allred, pastor of Aldersgate UMC in Chico, has been involved with prison ministry since 2014 when he was asked to be a part of the clergy team for Kairos. In his current appointment he says, "There are a large number of 'ex-cons' at Aldersgate, so the support for Kairos has been superb."
Aldersgate recently held a dinner that raised almost $1,000 for Kairos. The church also has a ministry to people who want to live in a safe, Christ-based, sober living environment. It is called "Paths Straight to Recovery" and houses eight men, and one manager. "We are attempting now to open one (house) for women, and we are looking for a place," says Allred. "One of the goals of this house is to be a place for those fresh out of prison who made a commitment to Jesus and sobriety in prison." Currently, three of the eight residents fall into this category.
The Rev. Gary McAnally has worked in prison ministry for 18 years in two different prisons with Kairos teams, first as a layperson, now as a member of the clergy team. Three years ago McAnally, who is now retired, took a year sabbatical to research issues around prisons and to preach in churches, and speak to community groups to raise awareness about prison ministry and encourage engagement. McAnally wants the people, and churches of the annual conference to "engage in some forms of jail/prison ministry, and engage in communications efforts to raise awareness of the issues discussed in the summit conference."
The Rev. Rochelle Frazier, chair of Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) Bay Area caucus, says that prison ministry is one of the current goals, and part of the program development for the caucus. The caucus authored a resolution that passed during the 2014 annual conference session entitled, "Prison Reform-Ending Mass Incarceration." The resolution called for the California-Nevada Conference to do the following: study and engage with various resources and resolutions adopted by the denomination; initiate direct service ministries to the formerly incarcerated; call on governors and legislators of both California and Nevada to halt the expansion of private prisons; create afterschool programs for at-risk children and youth; and, observe an "Incarceration Awareness Sunday" annually.
Although not currently involved in prison ministry, Frazier, who is the pastor of South Hayward UMC, says she attended the summit to gather information about prison ministry programs that currently exist in the annual conference. "After the summit, I identified reentry programs via the internet in both Alameda and San Francisco counties." She added, "In 2010, I was a part of the planning group for the East Contra Costa County reentry program. I was the only church in the group of approximately 25 participants, which were mostly social service agencies."
The group viewed the Netflix documentary "13th" by director Ava DuVernay. The documentary is named after the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution that banned slavery. There was also a presentation by the Rev. David Robinson who serves as a prison chaplain.
At a later date, Bishop Carcaño will send out a survey asking for persons who are committed to eliminating the death penalty, and persons who want to work on dismantling the school to prison pipeline.
*Hygh is director of communications for the California-Nevada Annual Conference which is comprised of 370 congregations in Northern California and Northern Nevada and 72,000 congregants.