The Incarcerated Church
A version of this article originally appeared on JuicyEcumenism.com, the weblog of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, and appears here with permission.
It is tempting to neglect incarcerated Christians in America. Labeled as lost causes, we justify our lack of attention to the needs of these brothers and sisters in Christ because of the public punishment they serve for their past wrongdoings. Thank goodness this is not the attitude of Jesus Christ.
In a letter to his parents from his prison cell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “I wish I could be doing useful service somewhere or other, but at present that ‘somewhere’ must be in the prison cell, and what I can do here makes its contribution to the unseen world, a sphere where the word ‘do’ is quite unsuitable.” Bonhoeffer spent two years in prison, yet he published wedding sermons, gave Sunday sermons and shared the Gospel with his prison mates and prison guards.
An imprisoned Christian does not lead a static spiritual life. There is much work to be done for the glory of God behind those high-security walls. Of course, ministry within a prison that is led by a prisoner is far from easy. The daily challenges of prison life are too well known to require further mention. The challenges that do go unheard are the emotional and spiritual struggles endured by incarcerated Christians, such as feeling abandoned and forgotten.
There is no pretending that I can fathom the depths of imprisoned Christians’ trials. I will let a member of the incarcerated Church speak for himself. In a letter written to me, an inmate who is serving as a chaplain’s aid in an Arizona prison shared the emotional and spiritual battles he is fighting within the prison cells.
His letter reads:
I ask this, have you ever wondered what we on the inside go through? I speak not of prisoners, but of the incarcerated church. Most Christians do not pay us any mind. It’s like a person who never thinks of their liver, lungs, internal organs, etc. In the natural that is not wise. So how does this affect us in the spiritual?
Some days I spend time gleaning through church ministries I feel will be appropriate for the church here. Our chaplain reaches out to these ministries to only be turned down by most. The problem must be more serious than one must think. When a person has lost their way, they may neglect in measure their internal organs.
When Christians neglect the incarcerated church, have they lost their way? I dare say yes is the answer. What is sadder, I spend more time trying to clear up the distorted Christian views men embrace in here. I could go on forever on just that issue alone. What you see taking place out there is creeping in to the internal organs of the church in prison. You see its effect out there, I see the effects of that in here.
The toxins affecting the free Church has begun to affect the incarcerated. A virus is now in its internal organs. What are the churches feeding on, that even the incarcerated church is being affected? A malady is taking place and few, if any, say anything.
Few pastors will preach the whole truth. They only go so far, that’s why the churches are in the state they are in. When I first got saved I was a mess. The pastors I ran into were poorly equipped to help me. I was not an average Joe, I had traveled farther into sin than many. Their superficial service to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not enough.
Most imprisoned Christians are carrying out their sentences in compliance with justice. Still, mercy is a vital facet of our Christian faith. We cannot fall into the self-centered trends that lead us to deny the dignity and ministries of incarcerated Christians.
There are ways to help the ministries and morale of Christians, like my new friend from Arizona, within the incarcerated Church. One example is to partner withPrison Fellowship, whose mission is to build church leaders within prisons. Or encourage your church to start their own prison ministry that supports prison leadership and prisoners who are church leaders.
The Bible talks about the importance of imprisoned Christians, so why doesn’t the free Church on a regular basis?
I don’t raise this question in an accusatory or preachy manner. I plead guilty to neglecting the incarcerated Church for far too long. The Holy Spirit convicted me through my incarcerated friend’s letter. And so I, in turn, plead with you: do not forget the incarcerated Church.