Photo: Eric Sewell, left, and Brad Major hold a copy of the 2011 Lenten Devotional, Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus. Both men, members of Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn., contributed personal reflections. A UMNS photo by Kathleen Barry.
By the Rev. Kathy Noble
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) -- When Ronnie writes of prisoners who “have given up,” who “are waiting to die” or who “just want to die,” he knows well of whom he is speaking. With equal confidence, the inmate of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution writes, “The good news is that Jesus doesn’t give up on any of these people. Nor should we.”
Ronnie’s brief reflection on John 17, including his personal journey of more than 40 years to discover “Jesus is love; Jesus is real,” is part of the 2011 Lenten Devotional published by Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tenn. Fifteen current and former inmates of the maximum-security prison wrote more than half of the entries in the booklet. The rest came from church staff members and other sources.
Karen Vander Molen, a church member active in prison ministry, and the Rev. Mark Price, minister of spiritual formation, coordinated the project. It began as Price was considering who might write the Lenten devotional.
“Thinking of the themes of the season – repentance, sacrifice, what Christ has done for us,” he says, “it just came to me: these particular people have a certain perspective we (on the outside) don’t have.” Of the selections, he says, “No one could have said (some of the words) but an inmate.”
Vander Molen found several interested inmates during one of the communion services that Christ Church clergy lead each Sunday at Riverbend, and the prison chaplain’s assistant helped with the program.
The writers are a diverse lot.
Morris sends beaded cross necklaces to people he sees on the news. Joe coordinates the church’s pen-pal ministry from the inside. Ed is a Roman Catholic priest.
Larry C., Vander Molen says, describes himself as “walking with Satan for the first 50 years of his life.” He has “been totally, totally, totally captured by the Lord and absolutely exudes God’s love.”
Two years ago, Ronnie asked to transfer to work in the special-needs unit for chronically or terminally ill prisoners. Of Vander Molen’s first pen pal, she says, Ronnie “wanted to be a living witness to the power of the Lord at work in him.”
Life after prison
All have lived in Unit 6, the main trusty unit in the maximum-security prison. Living there “is a privilege, not a right,” says Eric Sewell, a former inmate and the first to join Christ Church while incarcerated.
He and Brad Major, another former inmate, are also among the writers. In prison, they attended the Sunday service, took Disciple Bible study and had pen pals. Both are now active in the Franklin congregation, worshipping and serving alongside friends they made while behind prison walls.
Sewell, who has been out for two years, sings in the choir and helps with the Wednesday Night Together meals. When he received his assignment, “I sat down to read the scripture, to ponder it and ponder it.” After reading commentaries by John Wesley and others, he “let the Spirit take over the keyboard.” Several years ago, he contributed to the church’s Advent devotional.
Major found the writing to be a time when God calls “us to get outside our comfort zones and grow. It’s just part of the walk, I guess, that we extend and rely more on the Spirit rather than ourselves to supply what we need. There’s nothing that I’m asked to do (on this spiritual journey) that feels comfortable.”
‘Something to contribute’
Released the week his assignment was due, Major (who wrote under his prison name William “BK” Martin) says the project “made us feel like we had something to contribute.”
Major serves with the Room in the Inn ministry to the homeless and travels with Jerry Nail, prison ministry coordinator for the church and the Tennessee Annual Conference, to talk with United Methodist Men’s groups about taking Disciple Bible study into other prisons.
He wants the writings to bless the readers and hopes they will realize “a lot of people out there are on a faith journey.”
“The devotions were written from the heart,” Sewell says. He hopes copies sent to the prison will encourage the inmates.
Vander Molen says she wants “to open some people’s eyes and heart to the fact that while they may have done anti-social, illegal activities of some kind, for some of them they did that 25, 30 years ago and that’s not who they are at this point.
“They made mistakes. We make mistakes, and the Lord loves us all.”
Noble is editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine