Restorative Justice Ministries - Beyond the Walls
Every day, 50-100 inmates are released from the Walls Unit – a prison less than a mile from First United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Texas. FUMC’s proximity to this prison, and almost a dozen others in the surrounding county, beckons church leaders and volunteers into an active role in ministry to those involved in the criminal justice system.
Restorative Justice ministry within the Texas Annual Conference reaches far beyond the boundaries of what one might think of when they hear the phrase “prison ministry.” They often touch the lives of those currently and formerly incarcerated, and bring Christ’s love in many forms to their familes, correctional officers and victims of crime.
Connie Adams, a layperson who works in the prison system, is the chairperson for Restorative Justice ministry at FUMC Huntsville. “I was serving as a Stephen Minister when one of our pastors called me and asked if I would consider taking on their prison ministry for a little bit. We busted it wide open,” she said. They started with one program – an Angel Tree ministry, but now have several programs focused on meeting the needs of everyone involved in the prison system.
“At Christmas time each year, our Angel Tree ministry receives a list from the community of children’s names who have incarcerated parents,” Adams said. FUMC, in conjunction with two other local churches, purchases gifts and clothes and hosts a Christmas party complete with cookies, punch and cake. “We have music, a story teller, and Santa shows up to distribute gifts. The guardians also receive a shopping bag filled with toiletries and cleaning supplies.”
She also spoke of the Hospitality House, a local facility staffed by volunteers where people visit their incarcerated family members in area prisons during the weekends. “They can have their own bedrooms complete with bunk beds for their kids. Our church has helped furnish the conference room and chapel - complete with a prayer bench made by one of our members, as well as a beautiful cross handmade by inmates. We have also had some of our Sunday school classes provide meals for families who are visiting incarcerated loved ones.”
Some prisons in the area will allow volunteers to record inmates as they read children’s books. Volunteers then mail recordings to the inmates’ children, who can then listen to their parent read them a story even though they may not see them on a regular basis.
Rev. Mark Pickett, associate pastor at FUMC Huntsville, said during colder months they hold a major coat drive for ex-offenders who are released from the Walls unit. “We collect coats from people in town as well as other churches in the West District. The coats are then distributed to inmates being released.”
“Bridges to Life is another wonderful ministry,” Pickett continued. “Religious volunteers who have personally been victims of crimes come into a prison and meet with inmates.” With gentle confrontation, victims describe their feelings related to the crimes they have experienced to put a face on the injustice and aid in the restorative process. “It offers the victims and inmates a chance for reconciliation.” (Volunteers don’t usually meet with inmates who harmed them directly.)
“This year we started a program called Cookies for Cops,” Pickett said. “Once each month, volunteers make 30 dozen cookies for local agencies including the Huntsville Police Department, Walker County Sheriff’s Department and staff at the jails.
Adams said she is also working on a welcome back program where, the night before inmates are discharged, they are given cards with contact information. “We say ‘tell us where you’re going… If you’d like a call from a church member in your community, give us your contact number.’”
“Because we do so much inside the prison, I feel we also need a program once they come home to reinforce what they had in the prison and also provide community support for them, their families and the victims,” she continued. “We need something community-wise for them when they come home that includes the church and church family. We invite them to let us know if there is anything we can do to help them.’”
Learn more about the ministry of First UMC Huntsville at: http://huntsvillefumc.org/
To learn more about Bridges to Life, go to: http://www.bridgestolife.org/