Proclaiming freedom for prisoners

Photo: Zulmaury Saavedra, Unsplash.

I remember THE FIRST TIME I visited a prison. I had signed up for a police academy course, a series of -classes sponsored by the Goshen police de-partment to make police work more transparent. I was writing a book about Christian pacifism, and it seemed important to try to understand what the world of law enforcement looked like from the inside. 

The class was illuminating for lots of reasons, but one of the most enduring memories was the overwhelming sense of sadness I felt when our group visited a local prison — along with a healthy dose of guilt that I had never visited anyone in jail. 

After all, the Bible has a lot to say about prisons and prisoners. 

Jesus opened his ministry by quoting the prophet Isaiah in proclaiming release to the captives (Luke 4:18). Just before his own arrest, Jesus claimed that a crucial mark of Christian faithfulness was visiting prisoners (Matthew 25:36). The apostle Paul, jailed at least three times, boldly appropriated the stigma associated with incarceration to describe himself as “a prisoner of Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:1). And some of the most moving testimonies from the Radical Reformation in the 16th century are prison letters, written by Anabaptist men and women as they faced torture or awaited execution.

So I find it particularly inspiring that at least two groups in our global Anabaptist-Mennonite family have gained national — even international — attention for their creative prison ministries. 

In 1984, members of the Concordia Mennonite Brethren church in Paraguay began to host Bible studies and worship services in the Tacumbú prison, a notoriously violent, underfunded and overcrowded penitentiary in the capital city of Asunción. Eventually, several visionary leaders began to explore ways of addressing the desperate, often dangerous, living conditions they witnessed there. In a remarkable expression of trust, the Paraguayan Ministry of Justice allowed Concordia to adopt and reform several of the worst wards within the prison. 

The results have been phenomenal. Prisoners who successfully apply to live in the wards run by La Libertad are accountable to a set of clear standards, including shared decision-making, care for their living space and a plan for education or job training. Regular Bible study and church attendance are strongly encouraged, though not absolutely required. Conditions are still harsh, but the oasis of relative safety, dignity and calm afforded by these wards has gained international attention as a model of public-private partnership in prison reform. 

EQUALLY AMAZING is the prison ministry of the Meserte Kristos Church in Ethiopia, which has earned national recognition for its focus on peacemaking and reconciliation. As a young man in the 1980s, Solomon Gebreyes had hoped that the socialist ideals of the Marxist regime would bring an end to the injustices of the traditional Ethiopian feudal system, but he was quickly disillusioned by the corruption he witnessed within the government. His life changed when he encountered the gospel through an MKC evangelist, and he committed himself to living out the teachings of Jesus. 

The prison ministry Solomon started in 1993 was initially very modest, funded by private contributions. But in northern Ethiopia — where a cultural tradition of family blood feuds and honor killings had filled the prisons with murderers — Solomon’s work slowly gained a reputation for its biblical emphasis on reconciliation, restorative justice and trauma healing. When MKC made the prison ministry a department of the church, the scope of its work expanded. Today, MKC is active in more than 50 prisons in Ethiopia, working closely with Ethiopian Orthodox priests, deacons, mayors and police chiefs in an effort to break cycles of violence. 

The MKC prison ministry provides annual training sessions to scores of prison chaplains, equips public school peace clubs with training in nonviolence and conflict prevention and has developed an extensive support network for families of prisoners, especially children who are often incarcerated along with their mothers. At a celebration honoring the prison ministry, a government official said, “MKC accomplished what the government could not do. Reconciling adversaries became possible because of MKC’s great effort.”

Closer to home, the United States holds more than 2 million prisoners — about 25% of the world’s total prison population. The number of inmates in the U.S. has increased by 500% over 40 years, including a hugely disproportionate number of Black men. 

How is your church responding to this painful reality? What might we learn from our brothers and sisters in Paraguay and Ethiopia?  

John D. Roth

John D. Roth is project director of MennoMedia’s Anabaptism at 500.

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