Inmates and members of Tucson congregation gather for monthly prison worship.
Taking with them a few notes and not much else, they meet with a growing group of residents of the prison for a worship service in a classroom. This ministry was initiated by a prisoner, Tom, who, having experienced Unitarian Universalism before being imprisoned, started a UU group inside the prison and then reached out to the Tucson congregation for support.
“He’d been a UU in the Bay Area of California,” said Margaret Fleming, who helped organize a group of people at Mountain Vista to support the fledgling group, which calls itself UU Gateway Fellowship.
The format for the monthly gatherings varies. Some weeks there’s a fully formed service including a sermon. Other times the service consists of readings, shared poetry, and a discussion. Whatever the format, there is generally also time for sharing of joys and sorrows, with battery-operated candles. “It’s a chance to express some of the things on their minds,” said Fleming. “Often they’re worried about family members.”
Music is sometimes provided by congregation members with a guitar and harmonica. There is also a keyboard the group can use to accompany hymns from Singing the Living Tradition.
The Rev. Joy Atkinson had taken the call from a prison chaplain about the interest inside the prison for a UU service while she was serving as interim minister at Mountain Vista a year and a half ago. She noted that the inmate, Tom, had been in contact with the Church of the Larger Fellowship (CLF). “He said that sharing his thoughts and feelings about the UU principles and ideas with other inmates had become very important to him.”
After corresponding with him, Atkinson raised the possibility of the prison ministry with the congregation. She found plentiful interest, and 18 people were trained to become regular visitors.
“Then each time we visited, our members came away very inspired by the inmates and their commitment to UU principles,” Atkinson said. “And the inmates expressed their relief and delight in finding an open, non-dogmatic faith, just as new UUs in our congregations do.”
“We were happy to reach out to the prisoners,” said Fleming. “Because most of them are people who were moved to this prison from California, they don’t get many visits from friends and family.” Most are in prison for gang activities and drug and sex offenses.
The gatherings, which are on Fridays and which have been going on for a year and a half, began with a half-dozen people and now are attended by a core group of a dozen or so. One recent service attracted about twice that. Sometimes a prison Wiccan group also joins the service.
The prison allows two hours for each service. Generally the participants break into small groups for part of that time and discuss either the sermon topic or questions from Quest, a publication of CLF, which some of the prisoners also are members of.
CLF has its own prison ministry, run by the Rev. Patty Franz and serving more than 500 prisoners who are CLF members. CLF provides worship materials, Quest, and UU World to members. Prisoners can also request free monthly reading packets of chapters from books by UU authors. CLF also offers correspondence courses on UU topics. About 40 percent of CLF’s prisoner-members also correspond by letter with UUs outside of prison through the CLF Letter-Writing Ministry.
“It’s wonderful,” said Franz, “when UUs from local congregations meet regularly with prisoners in their local jails and prisons, as their face-to-face conversations with inmates can literally ‘incarnate’ Unitarian Universalist values and practices in a way that’s impossible for the CLF to do by snail mail.” Congregations interested in organizing prison ministries can find information on the CLF website.
On May 19, there will be a service at the Tucson congregation centered on writings and other reflections from the prisoners. Fleming said she hopes that other UU congregations in the area may want to get involved with the prison ministry. And she hopes that the prisoners themselves will spread the program.
“The prisoners are moved every two years. We hope they will evangelize and start new UU groups wherever they go,” she said.
Fleming said her involvement in the prison ministry has changed her. “Before, I think I looked down on prisoners. But most of them are really intelligent and good human beings. There are some very talented artists, writers, and thinkers in our group. They’ve changed my attitude toward prisoners.”
She emphasized that she and her husband John are only two of many congregants who keep the prison ministry going. “We’ve become very close to each other and we function well together. It takes all of us to do this.”
The prison congregation is much more diverse than the Tucson congregation. Said Margaret Fleming, “The congregation is pretty much white people with white hair. The prisoners are primarily in their 20s and 30s and very racially diverse.”
The ministry donates books, videos, and music CDs to the ministry program. Gifts to the prisoners themselves are not allowed. Fleming’s husband is making a website for the group where their writings can be posted. “We’re trying to collect resources that will help them when they get out, including a list of employers who will hire felons,” she said.
John Fleming admitted to being just a little bit apprehensive when he attended his first prison service, but said he quickly overcame that. Added his wife, “I think we all felt that way at first, but now it's familiar and we feel very safe. And the inmates we've come to know are just good people who have made some bad choices.”
Said John Fleming, “Going to a prison service is pretty similar to going to a service at our fellowship. Sometimes there’s more passion at the prison service. I think that makes sense because the prisoners have a lot of time to think.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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