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North Carolina Prison Ministry Conference: 'Congregations Inside Create Hope'

By Jane Merritt and Val Hymes
[Episcopal News Service]  "All of us have a prison of our own," said Bishop J. Gary Gloster at a Prison Ministry Conference and Workshop in North Carolina in March. "One of the things we all share is our brokenness."

The retired suffragan and now assisting bishop to the Diocese of North Carolina addressed 65 lay and clerical prison ministers or seekers from two dioceses -- North Carolina and East Carolina -- at Christ Episcopal Church in New Bern March 4 and 5.

"There is not that much difference between those inside and those out," he added. "We are all of one blood – part of God's kingdom. We can't allow Christians to build up walls of self-righteousness ... and create a vast separation and isolation between us and ` our sisters and brothers in prisons, jails and compounds … We are all God's children."

But Bishop Gloster warned that one's "attitude" going into prisons is important. It's "dangerous to say we take God into prison," he said.

"I don't take God anywhere. We minister to make room for God. If you come in to help me, you are wasting your time, but if your liberation is bound to mine, then let us learn together."

He praised dioceses that recognize congregations inside prisons. "They would be a real mission – a real witness – to hope."

The conference workshops included Yokefellow Prison Ministry, Transition Aftercare Network TAN (helping ex-offenders transition into society through a network of local church communities), Epiphany Ministries -- a program for juvenile offenders, Ministering to Detainees in County Jails, Jazzercise for women prisoners -- thinking outside the box to reach inmates and INS, a gateway to the Hispanic communities.

Also Kairos and Kairos Outside programs, PVS, Prison Visitation & Support (a Federal prison ministry), Angel Tree and other Prison Fellowship programs; LINC (Leading into New Communities) – programs to help released offenders start anew, and Ministry of Hope, Healing and Second Chances, a Charlotte, NC-based ministry reaching out to inner city victims of vice. 

"This conference is the first in a series of regional conferences. Another will be in the Southwest may 12-14," said the Rev. Jackie Means, director of prison ministry and criminal justice officer for the national church. She praised conference coordinator Jane Merritt of Christ Church, who ministers at three prisons and has a broadcast ministry, for "pulling together a dynamic event."

"It would be such a blessing," said Merritt, "if people are moved to come forward to serve in this region. We need to look beyond the geographical boundaries of our dioceses and seek ways of pooling our resources so that the prison populations in this state and surrounding states can be more effectively reached. The attendees at the conference came from many denominations. We need to work together ecumenically and support each others programs."

She said an e-mail list of conference attendees has been established. "It is hoped that a state-wide prison ministry group will actively help promote programs throughout the state. Several people have already expressed an interest in promoting key programs in the parishes of the diocese of East Carolina."

"Jackie Means," Merritt added, "opened the eyes of the attendees at the conference to the many ways of serving in prison ministry. She spoke frankly about the do's and don'ts of prison ministry and stirred people into action."