Wisconsin UCC furthers ecumenical efforts to help current and former inmates

Wisconsin UCC furthers ecumenical efforts to help current and former inmates

December 13, 2012
Written by Emily Mullins

St. Paul's United Church of Christ in Wausau, Wis., is located "on a strange line," said the Rev. Phil Schneider. On one side of the church is an affluent community, with upscale shopping, fine dining and a bustling theater district. Two blocks from the other side of the building is a neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of heroin use in the state, homelessness and despair.

"We have had to figure out how to minister to this line," Schneider said. "It's a neat opportunity, but a strange balance."

Embracing both the "haves and the have-nots," St. Paul's works with other members of Greater Wausau Christian Services, an ecumenical organization of 13 churches that provide various services to those in need throughout the community.

GWCS primarily serves the residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and those in the county jail and juvenile centers. Programs offered include worship services, bible study, sensory services, and re-entry training. St. Paul's focuses on jail ministry. About five members of the congregation are part of a rotating list of volunteer pastors, deacons and lay people who provide worship services and bible study at the county jail a few times a week, and also offer training on job interview skills and resume building. Bill Panzigrau, St. Paul's member and GWCS board member, says the goal of this program is to help make sure former inmates get a fair shot at building a new life once they are released.

"I've learned an awful lot about inmates and how they are treated and released," he said. "It is very hard for them to re-enter the community and have a normal life after that. The normal person's thought is that these people got themselves into trouble and it's their fault they were there, but we are still all God's children."

St. Paul's also participates in a county-sponsored initiative called Breaking Barriers, a relapse prevention program designed to reduce the likelihood of future criminal behavior. An offshoot of this, the church has developed its own program called Open Door, which offers life skills and job readiness classes on a quarterly basis for inmates who have been recently released. In addition to a "warming shelter," where the area's homeless people can come to the church to get a hot meal and escape the cold, each holiday season St. Paul's involves the community with Kids Count, a program to provide gifts to children of incarcerated parents. Schneider said the number of children varies by year, but that the church serves at least 25 families each Christmas.

"We have a lot of good folks trying to make a difference," Schneider said. "And we truly do, we see it every year."

For Panzigrau, the best part about GWCS is that it allows each member church to make a bigger impact than it ever could on its own. By dividing up the time and responsibilities, each church can provide a service and make a difference even with just a few volunteers. Since 1980, this has been the goal of GWCS and its "community of congregations" that offer time, compassion and support.

"This is a way for us to help," Panzigrau said. "To fulfill what the Bible tells us to do."

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