By Carol Sasser Dalton, Chaplain with Ministry of Hope who serves women in teh Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women
The shift created by a pandemic in prison is a little different from what many colleagues are experiencing. No corporate worship means no corporate worship! Zoom and Facebook Live don’t exist inside the fence. Longing for an iPad and the ability to connect grieving women with their families during funeral home visitation doesn’t bring it into being!
Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women is a 366-bed minimum security prison in a beautiful valley between Black Mountain and Asheville. We have acres of green space, and four dorms are spread out with a stand-alone chapel that holds 200. Prior to March 15, 2020, the chapel was abuzz seven days and nights a week. Many community volunteers representing 20 or more local congregations provided worship services, bible studies, transitional mentoring meetings, prayer meetings, active listening groups, community church passes, and so much more.
Volunteers entering the facility came to an abrupt halt on March 16. For the next few weeks, we maintained as much normalcy as possible, but as the virus spread in other prisons, it became necessary to stop all group meetings.
So, what to do? I’ve passed out hundreds of adult coloring pages. Our nonprofit, Ministry of Hope, provided journals, colored pencils, and puzzles. I sent out journaling prompts, grounding exercises, and lists of ideas for delving into various spiritual practices. I printed an information sheet about how to use our very simple labyrinth, created by our horticulture class a couple of years ago. Currently, women of all faith traditions are writing single-page entries for a devotion booklet, “How I Survived in the Time of Covid-19.” They also are invited to take a deep dive into the lectionary text each week. They receive a couple of translations of the text and some reflection questions to get them started.
Books are being devoured! It’s not unusual to hear some friendly banter about how many books women have read in the past week. The chaplains’ library has never seen so much traffic. I like having a conversation with a woman, asking if she enjoys reading, and then handing her a book to try. Some take to being stretched more than others. It is a joy to watch as new questions are sparked and “God-in-a-box” theology is transformed into “I wonder….” When we realize God is so much bigger than our imagination, growth can be exponential!
Today, as I was pondering what to write, a woman walked into the chapel and asked me what I thought about the end of Daniel and Revelation! I could almost see the whirling of questions in her head. When she took a breath, I said, “Here’s what I think: God is love and Jesus wins.” I did say something about empires and application for different generations, but then I repeated, “God is love and Jesus wins!” For whatever reason, that seemed to settle her anxiety.
Perhaps the most meaningful opportunity is a win-win! Landscaping around our chapel was looking quite bedraggled. One woman asked if she could pull weeds. Well, yes, please! Next thing I know, she’s bringing her friends who are tired of looking at four walls, and they are laughing and pulling weeds, putting down mulch, and turning an ugly situation into beauty to be enjoyed by all.
The desert creates thirst, and women come one by one in search of water. “Chaplain, I miss church services.” I commiserate a bit, and then I use the opportunity to talk about my observations of what happens with so many women when they leave prison. They get really busy, and joining together in a spiritual community slips away. We talk about using this time in the desert to figure out how to feed ourselves and how to create community. Sometimes a woman will say, “This talk helped. Is it okay if I come back next week?” Absolutely!
So next time you have a Zoom meeting, please pray for the prisoners who have not seen their families since March 14; who have not experienced anything close to traditional worship since April 12; who have not gone out on their work release jobs in two months and fear they will be replaced; and who have no idea what kind of world they are walking out into when they release. Pray for those who, like so many of you, have experienced the death of a family member without any opportunity for closure. Please pray we remain healthy at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women, but also pray for the prisons that are virus hotspots.
If you would like more information, check out Ministry of Hope, Swannanoa on Facebook; and our new YouTube Channel.
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