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One Parish One Prisoner ministry connects churches with incarcerated friends in Washington state

Teri McDowell Ott interviews church members about their experience of faithful connections with incarcerated persons.

Phillip and family with their (Presbyterian) OPOP team in Bellingham, Washington. Photo submitted.

Alvin Shim, director of operations for One Parish One Prisoner (OPOP) at Underground Ministries, has in his office a whiteboard full of green and purple sticky notes. The name of an incarcerated friend is written on each green note. The name of a church with an OPOP team is written on each purple note. Shim needs more churches written on purple notes.

OPOP was born when Chris Hoke realized Washington state had as many churches as it had incarcerated individuals in its prisons. (Story on page 12.) He envisioned each church adopting a person in prison. From Hoke’s experience as a gang and prison chaplain, he believed such relationships would lead to mutual transformation and resurrection. The OPOP program is the manifestation of this vision and its mission. Underground Ministries opens new relationships of embrace and trust between the incarcerated and the communities to which they return—for our mutual transformation and resurrection.

OPOP is unique in its focus on relationship building. According to Shim, a lot of ministries offer housing, employment and networking to individuals newly released from prison. He said, “We need every one of those ministries.” But OPOP connects incarcerated people – at least a year before they are released – with church teams that will accompany them on their journey. An OPOP team consists of seven people who can tap all their networks to advocate for the team’s incarcerated friend and encourage them through the trusting relationship they have built.

Success, according to OPOP, is the relationship itself. The incarcerated have seven new friendships—people who are not trying to sell them drugs, not trying to fix them, not even trying to get them to attend their church.

“Our incarcerated friends,” Shim said, “want to enter into new relationships with people who can see them for who they genuinely are … not who they were in the past … or who they were when they were in active addiction.” He added, “Our friends in church have just as much to unlearn in this new relationship.”

Presbyterians throughout Washington state have embraced this accompaniment ministry. OPOP offers training through a series of monthly learning modules Hoke has developed, walking teams through what to expect. They should expect a loss of control, expect to let go of temptations to “fix” or “save” and expect challenge and frustration. They should expect to examine themselves and all they have buried as they examine all our society has buried in its prisons. They should expect transformation and resurrection.

OPOP groups begin and end each meeting with a prayer of welcome:

I welcome everything that comes to me in this moment because I trust it can be part of my healing.
I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations and conditions.
I let go of my desire for approval.
I let go of my desire for control.
I let go of my desire for false security.
I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person for myself.
I am open to the love and presence of God, and the healing action and grace within.

In a Zoom interview shared with the Outlook, Presbyterians working at various stages in the OPOP journey discussed their experiences and shared learnings. Their responses are transcribed below, with minor edits for privacy, clarity
and conciseness.

Dan Holland
(Pastor of Mount Vernon Presbyterian)

Our first experience with OPOP was very difficult for our congregation. Our returning prisoner came out and ended up in relatively short order going back in, and it was really heartbreaking. It immediately made us come to terms with why we are doing this. Is our goal to fix somebody? Is our goal to make somebody’s life better? Is our goal to help somebody stay out of prison?

And of course, on some level we want to do all that stuff. But we realized our goal is to be faithful in relationship, to help them to know they are loved, regardless of whether they do everything right or whether they screw everything up. We had a “come-to-Jesus” moment as a team.

[Our incarcerated friend] just wasn’t ready. He disappeared from the housing we had provided for him. This was back in the day when [OPOP was just getting started]. We used to provide housing and a car and a whole bunch of stuff. There were all sorts of strings attached. … He was getting his needs met in large part by the congregation. So there was a power dynamic that was set up. We learned that’s not what we want to have happen. We want this to be about relationship — not primarily about providing the resources, but [about] accompaniment.

Sarah Catton
(OPOP Member, Mount Vernon Presbyterian, Mount Vernon, Washington)

As Dan [Holland] said, [our incarcerated friend] wasn’t ready, and I think we weren’t ready. We had just started up as a team, and almost before we had a chance to write more than two or three letters to him, he was out on work release. We had provided all of these things for him, and we didn’t recognize the extent of his anxiety. I think we just overwhelmed him with things and love … more than he was ready for. It led him to want to please us. He wanted to say what he thought we wanted to hear. But in the meantime, he was back with his old friends [and] his old habits, and so very quickly he was back in prison. So we learned we needed to focus on the relationship and letting him know we’re going to be there no matter what. We’re not going away.

Holland

It took a year of him being in prison and us still being around for [him to] trust we weren’t going to go anywhere.

He served more time in prison, and he’s come out and now he’s doing awesome, like remarkably well. I don’t know how much we get to claim any part of that, but we get to walk with him through it.

It’s easy to forget what the priorities are. In the [OPOP] meetings we’ll be like, “Maybe we can do this or this or this.” And it’s like, “Maybe we need to talk with our releasing friend and see what it is they need, what it is they’re experiencing,” rather than us scheming and dreaming and making something happen they may or may not want.

For me, it’s a bit scary sometimes to be vulnerable myself and say, “Here’s where I’m struggling with this.”

I’ve got pictures [of our incarcerated friends] here by my desk, in my office. I pray for these guys every day, and I write them so much less frequently than I intend to, because of my own hesitancy and my own fears and my own failures and my own sense of inadequacy. Why do they care what I have to say in the first place? So part of my pastoral role is to name that stuff in me and invite other people in the congregation to work through [their own stuff] for their personal growth.

Luke Hyder
(Pastor of Cascade View Presbyterian, Everett, Washington)

A unique part of our church team is that two of our church members have, or have had, incarcerated children themselves. They’re bringing that experience to the group. It’s added a lot. They’ve shared about their emotional journeys and their children’s [journeys].

Katherine Kipp
(OPOP Member, First Presbyterian Church, Bellingham, Washington)

The training modules are profound, and they set us up from the very beginning. [The training] stresses this is about our growth, about our journey. This is about our healing every bit as much as for our releasing friend. The success of this journey is not about how well [our incarcerated friends] do when they get out or stay out or whatever.

I’m grateful for that. The modules encourage us to be vulnerable and open with the members of our team … the affinity and the closeness, the trust that has grown in our group has been transformative.

My ex-husband had been in prison for a decade. I spent a lot of time [visiting him] in prison. He died in prison this year. [OPOP] has been a tremendous opportunity for growth and healing. I love how we say it in the opening prayer every time, that we are here for our healing too.

Bill Palmer
(OPOP Member, First Presbyterian Church, Bellingham, Washington)

[Our incarcerated friend], Phillip, was approved for work release, and then it got changed on him. The [Department of Corrections, or DOC] said, “Well, we’re too busy to process you. You’re going to have to sit here for another year.” Phillip gave us the name of state legislators who wrote the act for early release. We called them and raised Cain, saying, “You passed this law, and the prison system is able to just flip you off. What’s the deal?” And what do you know, two weeks later the [DOC] came back, and they found time to review his case. We’ve got lobbying power: the ability to advocate on behalf of our folks while they’re still incarcerated, so their experience is as positive as it can be.

Joyce Emery
(Interim Pastor, Bethany Presbyterian, Tacoma, Washington)

[Participating in OPOP] has been very meaningful for me as a pastor. It’s provided an opportunity for people in this church to go to a state of vulnerability and sharing that I honestly have never seen in any Bible study group or any type of social witness advocacy or mission trip. Thinking deeply about these injustice issues … it brings up our vulnerabilities and our greatest fears.

There’s been a lot of fear that’s been poured out on our table; and sometimes we just have to sit with it because we can’t solve it for ourselves, let alone our prisoner. Our hearts are broken right now for our prisoner, because she is up at the women’s correctional center and has run out of money. She can’t work anymore. COVID is raging again. There aren’t enough staff people. They live in fear. They’re confined. It’s breaking our hearts. A lot of this ministry is just allowing your hearts to be broken and trying to figure out how to just sit in that and be present.

Every week we read her letters and listen to her fears, and we aren’t sure how this is going to work. But we trust God will guide us as we head to her release date next April. I want more congregations, more Presbyterians, involved. I want to be a part of whatever we do to expand this circle of congregations.

The way this work prompts self-examination is apparent. Parker J. Palmer’s words in his 1999 book Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation are quoted in one of the first training modules:

I had always imagined God to be in the same general direction as everything I valued: up. I had to be forced underground before I could understand that the way to God is not up but down. The underground is a dangerous but potentially life-giving place to which [a deeply challenging experience] takes us; a place where we come to understand that the self is not set apart or special or superior but is a common mix of good and evil, darkness and light; a place where we can finally embrace the humanity we share with others.

“What are we learning through these relationships?” This question concludes each OPOP group meeting, inviting people to consider the ways God works between us, when the stones are rolled away from all we have buried in the tombs of our society’s underground.

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