… for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.’ - Matthew 25:35-40
Dear People of Spirit of Life,
I want to share with you the connection that God is creating with women who are incarcerated at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women.
This story begins in 2018, when I first moved back to the Pacific Northwest. I was in my third year of seminary. As I studied scripture and theology, God’s grace seeped deeper and deeper into my bones. I began to ask myself: Just how deep and wide is this grace? Who does it extend to? God guided my ponderings to this realization: grace is for everyone. No. matter. what. If it’s not, then it’s not God’s grace and forgiveness through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. So what does that look like for the people of our world who hurt others? Who create chaos and sometimes violence? I had so many questions, for God, for myself, for incarcerated people.
After a particularly meaningful and deep Bible study on a Christian response to the criminal justice system, I connected with Empowering Life, the Southwest Washington Synod’s ministry with incarcerated women.
Joan Nelson has long been the leader of this volunteer group. At the time, Empowering Life was holding a monthly worship service at the Washington Correctional Center for Women near Gig Harbor. Empowering Life also employed Sharon Peterson, who provided spiritual care and taught classes on grief, loss, and change for the women at WCCW. I became a member of the Empowering Life Board of Directors and attended worship each month. In 2019, I was invited to preach at and lead one of the services.
These Sunday nights became for me a deeply spiritual connection with God and with the women of WCCW. In worship the women shared their own stories of grief, loss, regret, and reconnection. They found freedom in our worship together when they could sing and pray and be honest about their own situations, especially their past lives, their families, and their hopes for the future. They heard God’s words of grace and love spoken over them again and again. As we held space for them, we too were encouraged and lifted up. God moved in and through those gatherings each month.
As I heard their stories and began to better understand the women of WCCW, my prior assumption that their plight was simply a matter of making poor choices began to crumble. More questions emerged. Probably the most poignant question that bubbled up was: Why them and not me? I began to study our country’s criminal justice and incarceration systems. Peeling back the layers of complexity around incarceration revealed the well known connections to poverty, racism, and substance use. And the research also revealed less obvious connections to trauma and abuse. Large majorities of incarcerated women report being abused mentally, physically and sexually as children. As I continued to worship and pray for the women at WCCW, I began to advocate for reforms that I believe would better prepare people to leave incarceration and return to healthy, whole lives.
Little did we know when we walked out of WCCW in early February 2020, that we would never return. Since the Covid-19 pandemic, the facility has struggled with staffing and coordination of volunteers. While we’ve heard that some limited return of programming and volunteers is happening, our program has not been able to do so. It has been a strange and puzzling situation.
Then in early 2023, a new opportunity presented itself.
Joan Nelson made contact with Chaplain Imo Smith, who serves Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women near Belfair. Chaplain Smith expressed a desire to have a worship service once a month that offered communion. Joan contacted me, and we identified the second Friday of each month for this service. We began in March. The services are simple - time for some prayer, acapella singing, dwelling in the Word and sharing our ideas and insights, and communion. Each time, the women are invited to write down a prayer that they would like to share. I share these prayers with Spirit of Life women who meet for Bible Study at the Landing on Fridays. The women of MCCCW are greatly encouraged that prayers are being said for them. It is so important to them that they are not forgotten.
Recently, Chaplain Smith invited me to teach a class on baptism. We had six in the class that was held in early June, and we had a wonderful discussion about the scriptural basis for baptism, the Lutheran understanding of the sacrament, and the promises that are made in the rite. At our July service, five women will be baptized. We will also have a musician, Heather Clauson, for that service. She is a guitarist and member of St Mark’s by the Narrows. She previously volunteered at WCCW with Empowering Life. Consistency, good music, and quality relationships will help the worship be fruitful and faithful.
I share this with you, the people of Spirit of Life, because without your call, I could not do this ministry. So thank you, for calling me to serve as your pastor. And thank you for giving me space to grow in my own gifts and share them with the women of Mission Creek. I am intrigued by what God is up to through this opportunity and will continue to listen to where God will take this. I ask that you pray as well for the people who are incarcerated at Mission Creek and for the people who work there.
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