Jesus encourages us in Matthew 25:43 to visit the “sick, and in prison.” While visiting the sick comes intuitively for us, visiting our brothers and sisters in prison often requires more forethought. Indeed, some are not familiar with this admonition by Jesus. Parishioners at St George Island United Methodist Church (SGI UMC) have accepted this challenge and have expanded its Mission Ministry Programs to include a Prison Ministry that is designed to reach the “least of these.”
As Mission Ministry Team Lead James Donald recalls, “Several months ago, Pastor Brian Brightly challenged the church, during a sermon about Jesus’ transfiguration, to expand its mission ministry footprint beyond the 5-mile bridge that separates the island from other communities in the panhandle of Florida. He noted that while Peter suggested building an altar on the spot where Jesus was transfigured, we were reminded that our most important responsibility as a servant church is to make disciples for Christ. Accepting his challenge, the Church has grown to 10 mission ministry programs that now include a new Prison Ministry. To support this expanded community outreach, the Church raised additional funds by increasing its 2d Mile Giving and by conducting its 1st Annual SGI UMC Mission Ministry Golf Tournament.
Our faith was quickly rewarded. The new Prison Ministry coincided with the election of AJ Smith as Franklin County Sheriff. The Sheriff supported our Mission fundraising by playing in the our Golf tournament and even made opening remarks describing the need for a partnership between the Sheriff’s Office, that housed 75 County inmates, and Churches in the community. Sheriff Smith, who is member of neighboring Apalachicola UMC, shared his vision of a faith-based partnership with churches throughout the county to help reach the heavily meth-addicted population in his Jail.
Today, SGI UMC is fully invested in the prison ministry with eight volunteers from the church who are approved to participate in programs and activities in the County Jail. These mostly retired men and women have broad experiential backgrounds including a medical doctor, lawyer, college professor, former abuse counselor, military retirees, teachers and others. In May, the prison ministry started a Celebrate Recovery Substance Abuse Program for female inmates in the jail purchasing book and supplies, and providing the volunteer instructor to facilitate the program.
Most significantly, the prison ministry has been very involved in standing up a promising new Faith and Character-based Housing Unit that the Sheriff has adopted for the Jail that as part of Fresh Start Visions Re-Entry Program. The program is a Christian organization through which volunteers and ex-offenders volunteer their time to help inmates prepare to re-enter society. Recently, the church partnered with the Sheriff’s Office and program administrators to purchase the paint and other supplies needed to help renovated the housing unit. Church support is critical in this effort because of the limitations imposed on using government funds to support some faith-based initiatives.
Fresh Start Visions Re-Entry Program founder, Tim Terry has worked since his release from prison in 2002, establishing re-entry initiatives across the state of South Carolina with the assistance Supreme Court Justice E.C. Burnett and many others who share the vision of seeing the captive set free. The results speak for themselves. Recent data from prison officials in South Carolina where the program is based shows that the recidivism rate among graduates of this program was only 4.9% during the period 2010-2016 as compared to a national rate of greater than 30% for a comparable period of time.
The stated mission of the program is to stop the revolving doors of recidivism in our prisons by introducing redemption, reconciliation and re-entry to those incarcerated so they return to society and become productive, law-abiding, and tax paying citizens. The curriculum of the Fresh Start Visions program is based upon the Christian principles of redemption and restoration. The program involves working with inmates during their final one to two years of incarceration. While in the program, they participate in an intensive and highly structured 50-hour a week program that encourages them to think about their future and not dwell in the past. They are trained, tested and vetted. They are taught the following principles:
- To deal respectfully with authority.
- To become transparent – working with a mentor to isolate behaviors that brought them to prison and to address them constructively.
- To take responsibility for their actions, both past and present. If you ‘mess up,’ you ‘fess up’ and work to make amends.
While in prison, participants will live in a character-based housing unit (CBU) which are less restrictive and where they are allowed to move more liberally and police themselves. They learn to live in their community productively and to hold one another accountable for their actions. They learn how to collaborate with others and they begin to help each other. They prepare their own individualized re-entry plans.
After release from prison, the ex-offenders are required to live in a faith-based transitional housing for a full year where they continue to develop pro-social character and lifestyles. While living there, they are helped with these three keys to success:
- Housing in a supportive and structured Christian home, and
- A structured network of support through mentors and a church community.
Through these support systems, men and women who are incarcerated are given hope and both material and spiritual support. We will see the transformation of their lives is nothing short of a miracle. It is a fresh start! They know God’s plan for them to have a more abundant life. (John 10:10)
SGI UMC Prison Ministry found that support for the Fresh Start Visions Re-Entry Program came easily because the program works from the “inside – out” by focusing first on changing the heart. “ Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV). The goal is to redeem offenders while in prison and continue to work with them when they return home. The program welcomes participation from all churches and community organizations who want to help these men and women get reintroduced and reintegrated into society as law abiding and tax paying citizens, and most importantly, who want to live constructive and fulfilling lives in community with their neighbors. To learn more about this program including how you can help, go to www.sgiumc.org or Freshstartvisions.org.
*The author is James Donald, Mission Ministry Team Lead, SGI UMC and former Georgia Commissioner of Corrections