Former Inmates Learn to Share Their Stories as Church Expands Prisoner Re-Entry Ministries

The assignment was to talk about something you do well, and Keith Rhames had a recipe for mac and cheese. That may sound like a strange topic for a motivational speech, but Rhames knew himself, knew his audience and already grasped some of the techniques that make brief TED-style talks so engrossing.

Rhames, 52, smiled broadly and made careful eye contact as he shared his story with the 20 or so people who had gathered the evening of Sept. 17 in a parish meeting room at the Episcopal Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York City. What made this mac and cheese special, Rhames said, was the fact that he made it last May.

He had wanted to surprise his mother with a meal. It was Mother’s Day. It also was just three months since his release from prison after serving 30 years for second-degree murder, and he would have settled for any meal that didn’t taste like the soybean-based slop that was his involuntary diet behind bars. But how would he learn to cook mac and cheese?

“Lo and behold, these days they have something called YouTube,” Rhames said, intuitively knowing it would be an effective laugh line. (It was.)

Rhames is one of a dozen formerly incarcerated New Yorkers who have signed up for Raising My Voice, a free 10-week public speaking and leadership course presented by Circles of Support and hosted by Heavenly Rest. The congregation has placed prisoner re-entry ministries at the core of its outreach efforts at a time when the Episcopal Church, too, is turning much of its criminal justice work toward re-entry ministries.

For Raising My Voice, Church of the Heavenly Rest volunteers help provide feedback to budding public speakers like Rhames. Other Episcopal dioceses and congregations are developing their own approaches to helping prisoners re-enter society, such as the Bridge Project in the Diocese of El Camino Real and Bridges Reentry in the Diocese of Arizona, both of which received grants this year through the church’s United Thank Offering, or UTO.

The time is ripe for church engagement. American prisons and jails are holding more than 2 million people behind bars, and most of those inmates someday will be released. More than 4.5 million people are serving probation or parole, living with the threat that one slip-up could return them to the “inside.”

Mark Cohen is optimistic about his future. “I changed my life around a lot since I came out,” the 54-year-old Brooklyn resident told Episcopal News Service. He served a 22-year prison sentence from a drug-dealing case but has been free for three years and is participating in the Raising My Voice classes at Heavenly Rest with the hope that the training will help him find better jobs.

Other participants of Raising My Voice shared similar stories of working to put their lives on a positive track after prison – doing their part to prove that all of us are “more than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” as prominent death row lawyer Bryan Stevenson has written.

The Episcopal Church’s work on criminal justice issues in recent years can be traced to a 2006 resolution passed by General Convention, and subsequent resolutions have expanded the scope of the church’s involvement, including to the problem of mass incarceration.

Such commitments overlap with the Episcopal Church’s elevation of racial reconciliation to a top priority, given that black and Hispanic inmates make up a disproportionately large cross-section of the prison population.

“There is an increasing awareness throughout the Episcopal Church of the oppressive and dehumanizing impact of mass incarceration on black, Latino and indigenous men, women and children,” said the Rev. Charles A. Wynder Jr., a priest and the Episcopal Church’s staff officer for social justice and engagement. “Transforming criminal justice ministries from traditional prison ministry models to more holistic work of re-entry and policy advocacy is a holistic and integrated approach to more fully living into our Baptismal Covenant.”

In July, the 79th General Convention passed Resolution D004 to endorse specific reforms, such as reduction of mandatory minimum sentences, repeal of laws allowing life sentences for nonviolent offenses, and implementation of measures to reduce discrimination against former offenders. Other resolutions seek to end the death penaltyand to eliminate a clause in the U.S. Constitution that makes an exception for inmates in the prohibition of slavery.

The church has been active in supporting congregations and Episcopalians who choose to invest in ministries involving visits to inmates in jails and prisons, taking their cue from the Gospel of Matthew: “I was in prison and you visited me.” Prisoner re-entry ministries are a new churchwide emphasis, and they are gaining momentum.

“Engaging in ministries that involve the accompaniment of men, women and children returning home from prison allows for mutual formation and transformation that may start with pain but doesn’t have to remain there,” Wynder said. “It is fundamentally part of God’s mission of transformation, renewal and justice.”

Heavenly Rest in Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side neighborhood wanted to do more than simply advocate for reform, preferring to get to know the people who are going through the re-entry process, said Richard Buonomo, one of the co-chairs of the congregation’s prisoner re-entry ministry.

He wasn’t sure parishioners would embrace the effort, but they have. “It just took off,” Buonomo said. “The activities we have created really get the volunteers to experience the transformation right at their fingertips with the people.”

The congregation’s assistance to prisoners re-entering free society falls into three general categories: helping with their first days out of prison, helping them establish a stable family life and helping them find jobs. Rather than create such ministries from scratch, Heavenly Rest saw its first step as establishing connections with community organizations already involved in such work, said the Rev. Anne Marie Witchger, the congregation’s assistant rector.

Those partner organizations include the Fortune Society and Network Support Services, both of which provide services to formerly incarcerated individuals. Heavenly Rest also has worked closely with Hudson Link for Higher Education in Prison to provide welcome bags filled with living supplies for inmates as they are released and to host celebrations for former inmates who have graduated from Hudson Link’s degree programs.

Circles of Support is a partnership of several organizations, including the J.C. Flowers Foundation, Heavenly Rest and several other Episcopal churches in New York. The partnership’s mission is expressed in the name, to create circles of support for inmates after their release.

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Source: Episcopal News Service