by Patrick David Heery
When the busload of teenage girls from an affluent boarding school in Farmington, Connecticut, entered the room, they weren’t exactly enthusiastic. They would be spending the afternoon with the Council of Churches of Greater Bridgeport, a faith-based social services agency dedicated to meeting the needs of people at risk and breaking the cycle of poverty and incarceration. The young women expected a hot afternoon of boring lectures.
They weren’t the only ones who had low expectations for the afternoon’s activities. As they walked into the room, a woman in her late 20s sat in a chair, eyeing the teenagers. Mary (not her real name) was there at the invitation of the CCGB. Mary had just recently gotten out of prison and was now living in a halfway house. As she watched the teenagers find their seats, she didn’t hold out hope for much mutual understanding.
Still, she began. She told her story, gave details about what her life has been like, and despite her reservations, was open and vulnerable. She told them how her family lives 20 minutes away by car but that no one in her family has a car. She described a teenage daughter who had long given up on her incarcerated mother—a maternal stranger who was now trying to reconnect. She described traveling three hours each way by bus in order to get to her new job at Wendy’s because it’s the only work she could find.
While Mary was talking, something began to happen in the room. The students began to listen, really listen; and all eyes were glued on Mary. The young women couldn’t imagine commuting six hours on a city bus just to work at a fast food chain. But what stunned them even more, they said later, was Mary’s vulnerability. They were particularly interested in Mary’s daughter, seeing as they were roughly the same age. Mary shared some of her daughter’s writing, rough and raw but full of longing.
The young women from Farmington were hooked. They asked permission to talk with the daughter directly. They began exploring avenues to help her get published. And by the end of that afternoon, they were all exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with Mary.
“These were young women from a privileged boarding school,” says Cass Shaw, a Presbyterian pastor and the president and CEO of CCGB. “This woman grew up in public housing—a totally different planet. But when they got real with each other, at her lead, they were simply people laughing and talking, eager to collaborate.”
This encounter is just one of the many ways CCGB and a new Prison Ministry Network of the Synod of the Northeast are working to reconnect and heal lives—even whole communities—broken by mass incarceration.
Agencies like CCGB have long labored to help people both in prison and those re-entering society. But many have faced enormous cuts in state funding in recent years. CCGB alone has lost a quarter of its budget, seen its re-entry program gutted, laid off five staff, and witnessed even deeper cuts to the Department of Corrections. Such programs stand on the edge of losing decades of experience, relationships, research, and work.
“The Prison Ministry Network is our challenge to the faith communities to live out the gospel in very specific ways and to stand in the gap,” says Shaw, who believes that hope relies on the volunteer power of communities coming together. “More than ever, our churches are needed.”
The idea for the network began with a conversation between Shaw and Kent McKamy of Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City. “I was fresh off having helped the Synod of the Northeast as part of a design team charged with reinventing the synod, and one of the things we had talked about was the formation of grassroots networks based on shared passions,” says Shaw. “Kent had been coming to Bridgeport to attend our re-entry roundtable. We knew how successful the roundtable was, so we said, ‘Let’s do that in the church! Let’s talk with each other and share best practices, advocate for reform, and become stronger together.’ Kent immediately got excited and brought in people from New York City.”
The network officially formed in 2015, thanks to support and funding from the synod. “The synod was very welcoming,” says Shaw. “This kind of collaboration is exactly what they’re trying to encourage.”
In May 2016, the network hosted its inaugural conference, which drew about 60 people from across the synod. “The conference was primarily about listening to and learning from people who have been in prison,” says Shaw. The speakers focused on the trauma of incarceration and how it impacted them in 3 aspects of re-entry: jobs, housing, and family reintegration. In each area we learned which trauma-informed ministries are addressing these areas effectively.
The vulnerability and honesty of the speakers, Shaw says, transformed an ordinary conference into a radical community-building and learning opportunity. “What humbled me was the reaction of those we asked to speak,” Shaw says. “They shared that they were surprised to be welcomed so generously—surprised by the people who asked smart questions and listened well, surprised by how safe they felt.”
Of course, that invitation posed, Shaw says, the risk of voyeurism. To make this conference—indeed this network—work, all the participants had to share and be vulnerable. It wasn’t enough to be moved or shocked by “salacious tales,” Shaw adds. They were going to need to do something with the stories and lives that had been entrusted to them.
The first item on the agenda after the conference was to develop a website that could operate as a staging ground for collaboration. More long term goals include capacity building (i.e., developing lasting and effective connections), programming, education (specifically, the development of a resource catalogue), and advocacy.
Currently, 130 people are listed in the network’s database, spanning 30 to 40 different ministries and agencies as well as 15 to 20 congregations, according to Shaw, who is quick to emphasize that the network welcomes everyone, regardless of their experience or expertise. (Anyone interested can reach out through the Network's webpage.)
Ultimately, this network and the conference that launched it are about hospitality, Shaw says. It’s not only about ministering to those who are vulnerable and suffering. It’s also about inviting them to minister to us. A perfect example of this mutual ministry, she says, is George Chocos, one of the speakers at the conference.
After his brother took his own life, Chocos turned to drugs and alcohol and was eventually sentenced to 14 years in prison for a series of five bank robberies. “Experiencing reality through metal bars caused me to critically reflect on my life,” Chocos writes. “With deep remorse, I chose to dedicate my remaining years to serving God by seeking to become an asset to my community.”
During the final seven years of his sentence, Chocos earned two bachelor degrees and graduated with a Master’s of Professional Studies in Urban Ministry. Just this spring, he graduated from Yale Divinity School on a full scholarship.
“We’ve been all too comfortable in our sanctuaries letting only a few of us provide leadership for ministry,” Shaw says. “The world is in such desperate need of light and love and healing. There’s an opportunity right in front of us. People are coming back from prison in every community. It is blasphemous for us to turn a blind eye to these people, especially given the urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement and the need to keep our police officers safe. We have a chance here, not only to help some people, but also to discover amazing partners and fellow disciples in this work of the gospel.”