The United States locks up more people in prison — in raw numbers and in percentage of the population — than any other nation in the world. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in federal, state and county jails, with more than twice that number on probation or parole.
Prison numbers appear even more dramatically out-of-balance when looking at incarceration rates for African-American males and other minorities.
“Prison is a mission field” with so many people in prison — or formerly in prison, said Burton Barr.
“It’s a very needed ministry,” he said. “That’s a way to reach people.”
As an associate minister at West Side Missionary Baptist Church in St. Louis, Barr leads the church’s prison ministries. He has also served in prison ministry leadership roles for the Missionary Baptist State Convention of Missouri and the National Baptist Convention U.S.A., Inc.
“Prison ministry has a direct mandate throughout the Bible,” Barr said, adding that prisoners and related topics are mentioned in the Bible more than 130 times.
Involved in prison ministry for two decades, Barr visits several prisons on a regular basis. He also works with aftercare outreach to people recently released from prison. He called aftercare “one of the most important parts of prison ministry.”
“We can go in and preach and sing, but then when they get out if they don’t have the resources, a lot of them might resort back to the same old ways,” he said.
Barr noted he experienced this problem personally. Although he grew up in the church and felt a call to ministry as a teenager, he “backslid” and ended up in prison. While incarcerated, a prison minister helped him return to God.
Make them feel welcome
Yet, after being released from prison, Barr found he was unwelcome at a congregation because he was an ex-convict. Eventually, he changed his path and now works at a church and ministers to prisoners just as a pastor once ministered to him.
Because of his own experiences, he hopes churches will recognize they “have to make sure people feel welcome and have resources for them and help them with whatever they need.”
He said that while missions are often thought about as something done in Africa or Russia or somewhere else far away, Christians “can do ministry right here at home by ministering to people who are locked up.”
Barr urged people interested in engaging in prison ministry to get training and connect with others already involved. He emphasized one did not have to go into a prison to minister to inmates but could help with aftercare ministries or work with families of inmates.
He also encourages Christians to write letters to inmates since there are tens of thousands of prisoners in Missouri alone who never receive a phone call or letter during their incarceration.
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