Jesus urges his followers in Matthew 25:36 that part of being a discipleship is noticing, visiting and caring for those on the margins, including those in prison.
A great example of ecumenical collaboration around prisons is found in the Prison Fellowship – one of CTE’s Bodies in Association – which sees a variety of churches working together to pray for and bless prisoners and their families..
Here Prison Fellowship’s regional director Pat shares something of their story…
Over the years Christians in the UK have responded to Christ’s call to visit those in prison (Matthew 25). Prison Fellowship was founded in the United States in 1976 by Charles W. Colson, following his release from prison after serving a sentence for a Watergate-related crime. Prior to his imprisonment, Colson had served as chief counsel for President Richard Nixon.
In the UK, Sylvia Mary Alison that believed God was calling her to develop Christian ministry in our prisons, but she was not clear about the way forward. As an eighteen-year-old, she felt God’s clear call to minister to prisoners, but she felt both appalled and afraid. Sylvia envisioned a brand new organisation growing and developing, “as all of us – of all denominations, of all sectors of society with different gifts and skills and roles and functions, brothers and sisters in Christ – met together and worshiped and prayed for the prisons and prisoners, and looked to see what God would have us do.”
Today the UK Prison Fellowship has close to 3,000 volunteers in 90 groups across the country. Every group is attached to a local prison and has volunteers from a variety of churches. In Pat’s group, this includes those from the Church of England, Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, people from the Eden project and the local Chinese Christian Fellowship. They range in ages too, from 23 – 90. Pat said she did very little recruitment, but found that word of mouth meant the right sort of people passionate about prisoners and their families found their way to the group.
A restorative justice programme called Sycamore Tree has seen 30,000 prisoners take part. The course is based on the story of Zacchaeus and is taught in prisons in groups of up to 20 learners, over a six-week period. Learners on the programme explore the effects of crime on victims, offenders, and the wider community, and discuss what it would mean to take responsibility for their personal actions. The course is run by an ecumenical team. Each team member has prayer support from their local church. Research suggests that it is the interaction between the prisoners and the volunteers that makes the biggest impact.
They have also set up a Prayer Line service. This is a free phoneline signed off by the Prison services, which allows anyone in prison to call a free number and leave a confidential message with their personal prayer request. Prison Fellowship’s team of volunteers are committed to pray for each person that calls on that day and across the following month. During the covid lockdown, prisoners have been locked up 23 hours a day and visits have been limited. The Prayer Line gives prisoners an opportunity to share what is happening and what their concerns are. Additionally, a Zoom prayer meeting of prison fellowship volunteers takes place once a fortnight with 150 people joining.
If you are interested in being part of the work of prison fellowship as an individual or a local Churches Together group, contact Prison Fellowship directly at firstname.lastname@example.org