United Church of Christ

Prison Ministry

Here is a shared letter from a friend, Rev. Philip Reller of Arizona.

In Matthew’s oft-recalled “Judgment of the Nations” the king will say to the sheep, “I was in prison and you visited me” and the unknowing righteous will ask “when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”

And the king will say, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mathew 25: 34-46 NRSV)

Jesus is intimate with his family. He is specific about visiting prisoners. We are called to embody Jesus’ heart and show forth his compassion to prisoners.

It is a very practical ministry of - Incarnation – love made visible in the flesh. Being there. Ours are a new set of ears listening to immensely consequential stories which have worn thin in the retelling to familiar cell and pod mates. Ours are new conversations and new perspectives.

It is a ministry of advocacy. Being there. The men I visit are cut off by thousands of miles from their families, communities, and support systems in private for-profit prisons. They are treated as strange enemies and are forced into culturally and religiously molded programs of “rehabilitation” which strip them of their cultural identity and dignity. Visiting allows us to witness their struggle and speak as allies for rehabilitation and respectful treatment.

It is a ministry of reconciliation. Being there. I have been allowed to share first hand reports of the condition of their sons, husbands, and daddies with families who have been estranged or ashamed or in the confusion of unresolved anger and grief. Appropriate sharing can build bridges towards forgiveness and new relationships. It can calm deep anxieties. It can pave the way for connections that create positive re-entry.

  • Seven million citizens are  active in the US criminal justice system.
  • 2.2 million US sisters and brothers are incarcerated.
  • 1 in every 100 men, 1 in every 1700 women resides in a state or federal facility.
  • The US incarcerates more of its own citizens than any other country in the world.
  • The fastest growing industry in Arizona is the private for-profit prison industry.

    What do these facts tell us about our country, our communities, our relationships? What do we as people of faith, both the incarcerated and those on the outside, have to say about these realities? How do they call us to be engaged as Jesus’ family?

    Visiting the incarcerated becomes a prophetic ministry. It changes lives. It opens doors to find solutions. It fills deep empty places with hope and love. 

    Let us come together to support renewed ministries for and with prisoners and their families, to seek alternatives to current culturally-biased, punitive rather than restorative criminal justice stances, and let us create networks of covenant partners for education, advocacy, and presence with our incarcerated sisters and brothers.

    - Phillip