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“I was in prison, and you visited me.” (Matt 25:37)
In St. Matthew’s Gospel, we see that in meeting the needs of the hungry, sick, and imprisoned, we are ministering directly to Jesus, who considers the poor, sick, and the imprisoned to be his brothers. Theology must be applied in the concrete reality of our everyday existence. By giving our lives unto others in the love of God, we see the face of Jesus our Lord.
Like many new seminary students, I came to seminary desiring to learn about my faith, but even more, to learn how to put that faith into practice. As Orthodox Christians, we greatly value Jesus’ command to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit prisoners. Recognizing the significance of caring for the ones Jesus loves as well as the importance of preparing seminary students for a life of ministering to others, St. Vladimir’s Seminary provides a Prison Ministry Field Experience for first-year students in the Master of Divinity program. We were able to enter into the world of those who spend their days behind bars.
We were trained and mentored for this work by Fr. Nicholas Solak, a veteran priest and SVOTS alumnus. He taught us, among other things, how to listen attentively to people and to handle difficult conversations. We also learned much from the prison chaplains who worked on site, especially a Roman Catholic priest, Fr. Paul. At the close of our practicum, we were blessed to have the presence of Chaplain Patrick Tutella, the Executive Director of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM). OCPM is a wonderful organization that helps Orthodox Christians begin and sustain their involvement in prison ministry. Through their work, a number of inmates have embraced the Church. Some have even become monks and iconographers while incarcerated.
During our Bible Study with the prisoners we reflected on the community of the early church in the book of Acts, the love of the Father in the parable about the Prodigal Son, and the love of Christ through the story of the Good Samaritan. We not only discussed the contents of the Bible narratives but asked how its teaching informs the daily situations we deal with, both in prison and in the world. The piety of many of these men was deep, and we learned much from them. They were reverently moved when we prayed the “O Heavenly King” and the “Prayer of Saint Simeon” as we opened and closed our meetings. A number of them were astounded that we were not getting paid for the time that we spent with them. During our last session at the prison, one of the men even sang a song for us that he had composed, in gratefulness.
Although, I realize that change involves far more than mere words, one of the first things I noticed when we began our prison Bible study was transparency. I heard stories of pain and regret; realization of sinfulness, men who wanted to see their children and to be set free. They wanted to know God and see Him at work in their lives.
I could not help but see myself in these men. Who knows what sort of life I would have without my loving family and healing Church? Although I might not be in prison for crimes against society am I not imprisoned by the idolatry of my own life; consumed by my wants, desires, and thoughts, forgetting the needs of my brothers, failing to be grateful for God’s great gifts? Am I not at times, in a prison of my own making? I believe that these men were a gift to us.
We had our share of adventures! Some of us got lost on the way there, others forgot to bring their driver’s licenses and had to return to campus to retrieve them. We all faced a ferocious possum. (Actually she was more cute, than mean.) Yet, it was either walk past the possum or climb the barbed wire fence! There were also a couple of prison lockdowns, which allowed us to see the danger these men were surrounded by.
“When I was in prison, you visited me”: these words of Christ remind me that our Lord is found when we meet Him in the lives of others. The prisons hunger for the Church to invite them to the table, for He came to call not the righteous, but sinners. Spending time with prisoners joined their stories to ours. We bear these men in our hearts and lives. It is with great sadness but also much hope that we conclude our prison ministry experience. I hope that this great gift hides itself in our hearts until we leave this place to put our faith into action. I hope that we, in the words of Fr. Paul, “become the face of love.”
Read about the development of the Prison Ministry Field Experience program at St. Vladimir's Seminary.