I was in prison, and you visited me.
– Matthew 25:36
“When I walk into the prison, a burden is lifted from my shoulders. I am freed from the problems and pressures of life.”
So said one of my colleagues and fellow prison chaplains in a recent conversation. And I understood exactly what he was saying. I do not long to be behind bars or to be a prisoner, but I miss my time in prison. For nearly three years, I served approximately 10 hours a week as a Presbyterian/Church of Scotland chaplain at HM Prison Edinburgh.
There were many things I liked and respected about the way prisons function in Scotland. This prison was not remote or cut off from the rest of society, but was a community-facing prison; chaplains’ roles involved working to establish links between the prison and the outside world. After all, the goal is to successfully reintegrate prisoners back into the society – not to just keep them away from society. Rather than having chaplains whose whole job was focused on or in the prison, many of the chaplains I worked with – whether they were Roman Catholic priests and nuns, Church of Scotland ministers, Free Church ministers or Salvation Army representatives – all had other ministry responsibilities in parish ministry. Some were teachers and professors, some were parish priests and ministers, some served in a particular religious order and, in my case, some were studying as a divinity school graduate student. Prison chaplaincy was a part of our work, but not all of it – allowing us to relate the prison to the larger world and the church and allowing us to relate the larger world and the church to the issues and presence and needs of the prison.
Serving inside a prison is not comfortable or easy. One is vulnerable, sealed off behind corridors and locked doors. Prisoners can be manipulative, dangerous and difficult. And the people who work in prisons can be loving, jaded, institutionalized, cynical and caring… all at the same time. I miss my time in prison. Worship was intense, beautiful and unique. In a society where men often do not sing in worship, I was blown away by the beautiful, strong, bold voices that made a joyful noise to God in worship in the prison. As one who was called to declare forgiveness and assure pardon in worship, it took on a whole new meaning and a more powerful urgency when spoken inside the walls of a jail. As prison chaplains, part of our development plan was to work with prisoners to reintegrate them into society, to find work, to find a church home, to find people that would offer support to people with a criminal record and a checkered past. In many ways, this was the most challenging and difficult part of a prison staff’s work. But perhaps it is the most critical to those of us who have answered the call of the gospel. To paraphrase the apostle Paul: How many of you were wise by human standards, how many were powerful or came from noble birth?
We like our prisons separated from the rest of the world, not easy to see, and fenced off and cut off from the rest of society. Yet what I found in the prison was a community of forgiven sinners, longing to be free, longing to get a second chance, longing to find a sense of vocation. What I found in prison was a freedom, a freedom to serve God in – not just apart from – the rest of the world.
CHRIS CURRIE is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Shreveport, Louisiana.