Finding Christ in others: Convicted at an Ohio prison

October 22, 2015

Last month, I went to prison and was convicted. Got your attention yet?

I went with a group of colleagues to the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Ohio. We were there to learn about a ministry called Horizon Prison Initiative, which the West Ohio Annual Conference and the General Board of Global Ministries have partnered with. It is an amazing ministry, and you can read more it about it here.

On our visit, we heard testimonies from a dozen men. These men had been in and out of prison for most of their adult lives. Some were serving a life sentence. They had done terrible things: They committed murder. They were sex offenders. They were drunk drivers.

They told powerful stories of having been transformed by the Horizon Prison Initiative and how they were, in their actions and daily living, transforming the prison itself. It was uplifting to see these signs of hope in a place where there is still a death row.

But that is not what convicted me. I heard a recurring theme as they told their stories. The path that landed them in prison often started in childhood. There was not a stable home. They were running with the wrong crowd. They made poor choices. But time and again, they also said this: Whenever they intersected with those who could help—social workers, teachers, the police, the church—very few took the time to really see the men as people, to listen long enough to learn who they were and understand the full set of circumstances leading to their behavior. All others saw was the problem, and they made judgments based on the men’s behavior, and yes, their color, and the neighborhoods they came from.

I want to be clear: The men were not minimizing their actions. They owned their crimes and accepted the consequences for their actions. But what they wanted was what everybody wants: to be seen, to be loved, to be valued. The core belief of the Horizon Prison Initiative is: Honor, respect, and dignity are due to each and every human being, not because of the greatness of their achievements nor how they have behaved, but because they are home to a soul that is inherently holy.

In the moment after hearing that, I was convicted. I remembered the questions Anita Phillips asked us annual conference session: Can you see us? Can you hear us? Can you find Christ in us? I went to Chillicothe, and I saw and heard. But even more, they were asking me to find Christ in them.

And I couldn’t help but wonder: Whose responsibility is it to help people know they are home to a soul that is inherently holy? Well, the church, of course! And where was the church when these men were boys? Did the church see and hear them then, and find Christ in them? And did the church love them, value them, show them honor, respect, and dignity…even as they were messing up their lives?

On the ride back from the prison, the conversation turned to Freedom Schools—something I need to admit my ignorance about. I Googled them. They are summer schools and after-school reading enrichment programs developed by the Children’s Defense Fund. The goal of Freedom Schools is to build strong, literate, and empowered children prepared to make a difference in themselves, their families, and their communities. Fourteen of the 27 Freedom Schools in West Ohio are run by United Methodist churches. I wondered: Do we have any in Minnesota? I continued Googling. Turns out, we do. We have 12. And one of them is run by Park Avenue United Methodist Church.

So, what if we had more? What if we took our church-school partnerships to the next level and said we will do what it takes to make sure every child can read at a third-grade level by third grade—and we will help every child know that they are loved and beloved, home to a soul that is holy, and this is already true about them? They just need to believe it about themselves and have some people come alongside them who believe in them because we see Christ in them. It seems that is a mission for the church.

Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).

Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

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