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Reconciling Inmates & Communities through Prison Ministry

Valerie Arthur is a New Jersey Department of Corrections employee seeking to transform the systemic realities of mass incarceration in New Brunswick Theological Seminary's new doctoral program that focuses on Prisons, Public Policy & Transformative Justice.

Arthur lives in two separate worlds. As an assistant pastor in her home church in Trenton, she teaches Sunday school, Bible Study and runs the women's group. And as 25-year veteran of the N. J. Department of Corrections, she supervises employees and departments managing an institution with hundreds of inmates. Her job bars her from entering another institution, so she has never participated in prison ministry.

But now Arthur is melding those worlds through the Seminary's Prison Ministry program, "I'm seeking the D.Min. to train churches for different models of prison ministry," she explains. Arthur received her M.Div. from the Seminary in 2011.

Traditionally, African American churches answer the call to prison ministry, according to Arthur. But she finds many denominations in prison-Hispanic, Catholic, main line Protestant. Jewish rabbis render service, say blessings, and run Hebrew studies. "I get letters from inmates all the time," says Arthur. "Sometimes a mother will call me to ask for a minister or rabbi. I wonder why they need me as a go-between. Then I know there's no further connection."

A minister herself, Arthur understands that religious leaders cannot extend their outreach on their own. They need lay men and women to be the hands and feet of Christ. "The laity is as Dr. Dennis tells us, 'the little old ladies with the knitting needles who sit in the back of the courtroom.' They let the accused and the judge know-someone is there for them. Someone cares for them. Be encouraged.'"

Typically, religious services in prisons focus on prayer, praise and preaching. "It has been long established that prison ministry is centered on the individual's reconciliation to God, as it well should be. However I would like to go to the next step," says Arthur. "I am interested in going deeper-how do we, as agents of reconciliation, reconcile the individual back to family and community."

Re-thinking what it means to become a reconciler, Arthur draws inspiration from two traditions embedded in African and African American History, the art of African oral storytelling and her own family traditions. She initially got the idea from a Lutheran Prison Ministries group who ran a storybook project for women-the incarcerated women were given children's story books to read and record on tape. The book and the recording are then mailed to children, who hear the gift of their mother's voice reading a bed-time.

Valerie intends to take this concept and rework it to have the inmates write their own stories. "Some of our inmates are very good story tellers. I think it's important for people to hear inmate voices, and for inmates to write their stories down. Writing is said to be a great healing tool."

"It could be factually their story or a fictional story that embodies elements that are meaningful to them, lessons they wish to pass on," she explains. "I wish to create a project that will reconcile an inmate to the most important people in his or her world, to help reconcile broken relationships - a father to his children, a mother to her community. And to make God's reconciliation work through relationships with people."

She entered the D.Min. program in 2012-2013 to flush out this idea and make it a reality. "I am just starting to think out loud with my covenant group about how to structure this project. To go beyond prayer and preaching, my project would train volunteers. Some would learn how to help people write stories."

Integral to the D.Min. program is developing a covenant group. Covenant partners provide support and direction in the candidates D.Min. Project. Arthur's team consists of a host of experts: a professor at Howard University, a former prison chaplain turned advocate, an organizational management consultant and grant writer, a prison psychologist.

Because her job at N.J. Dept. of Corrections bars her from entering another institution, to be successful, Arthur will have to become expert at action-at-a distance. She hopes her covenant team will help her connect communities and facilities. "I could find a church that already has a ministry, but my sense is it may be hard to shake up what's already established. To pilot the program my preference is to work with a church that has not started a prison ministry, and to start fresh. "

As people in the community and in the facility get to know each other, new needs will be expressed. There will be room for volunteers in different capacities. Visiting prison isn't for everyone. "We'll also need people who can work with children, with spouses, with mothers on the outside. When offenders first come in, we'll want volunteer inmates who can work with them and tell them survival stories."

Arthur imagines a potential volunteer as someone who says, "I'm not going to go into the facility, but when the father's envelope gets to the child, I'll be there to present it, talk about it, and help the child respond. Perhaps I'll take the child to prison. Or I'll go back to my community and tell them the mother is struggling." The mission can move out from one person to the whole world.

For the program, she will look for educators, someone who excels with the spoken word, perhaps a student with good writing skills.

Traditional prison ministries serve inmates who come to their denominational services. Arthur's program will be offered to the whole population. "If you went into a school, you wouldn't just serve one group of people. I believe in, 'Let your light so shine.' If your efforts really work, some will ask, why are you doing this?"

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