Taking their message inside
Rehabilitation over retribution, that is what prison ministry groups aim to do with their journeys beyond the walls into the concrete jungles of America. They come with messages of love, peace, and salvation from all sects of Christianity and beyond. Sweat lodges and Jehovah's Witnesses are united in a mission with Catholics and Lutherans.
One such ministry group gathers the third Saturday of each month and makes the trek inside the Crossroads Correctional Center. The men's ministry group is composed of individuals from across geographical and generational lines. Men from Billings and Helena rub shoulders with folks from Shelby and Conrad in order to bring the teachings of Christianity and the Bible to the inmates.
The groups head into the prisons for what is called an Altreya , or renewal. The Altreya lasts for two hours and gives the ministry group the opportunity to touch base with the prisoners and help in the renewal of their Christian faith and positive attitude toward life in general.
Before entering the prisons, the men must first take part in training exercises in order to be eligible to take part in the ministry. According to Crossroads program director Tennille Forsman, volunteers undergo background checks, drug screenings and eight hours of training.
"The training and all the checks ensure that volunteers can have a peace of mind," Forsman said. "This way they know what and what not to do when they enter the prison."
After training is finished, the volunteer groups are able to enter the prison and provide their services. There are 107 active volunteers that frequent the prison outside of Shelby. Various church groups come in and conduct services as well as organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous.
As for the Altreya that meets each third Saturday of the month, they are a non-denominational group that holds two different three-day retreats at the prison in addition to their services on the third Saturday of each month. The three-day retreats are called Cursillos, which is Spanish for a "short course in Christianity."
"Our main goal is for the prisoners to treat each other and their neighbors well," Dan Majerus, Conrad native and ministry member, revealed. "Once that is established then everything else will fall into place."
The group downplays denominational hair splitting which at times can muddle the messages ministry groups are attempting to get across. For Majerus and the handful of others that embark on the ministry, the key is to promote positive mindsets in the inmates.
"Another important issue for us is to help the inmates bolster each other up," Majerus said. "Prison is a terrible place for self-esteem and it can be difficult to stay positive without the right reinforcement."
"We have to let them know that they are not forgotten and that people care," Moe Wosepka added.
Wosepka, a Helena native, traveled to the Altreya this past weekend with other prison ministry members Dick Miller (Helena), Bill Whitmore (Livingston), and Doug Lowney (Helena). The four men spoke candidly about their experiences in the prison ministry.
All four admitted that early on there was fear of entering the prisons and facing the unknown. But after years of service, the ministry members have learned most of the inmates are individuals that have just made a bad choice or two.
"Inside each human is a really good person, I sincerely believe that," Lowney said. "We have to peel back those layers and find that person. We try to teach them the value of each person and the value of themselves."
"Many of the people in there have been abandoned their whole life, either by family, friends, or loved ones," Wosepka added. "That's why we keep going back. We want to show them that they are not alone."
If you have watched prison films or listened to particular politicians, an image of life behind bars begins to form in which the correctional centers serve as mere zoos for hundreds of caged animals with ruthless hearts and devious minds. After speaking with the Altreya members, one cannot help but form a different opinion.
"Before I did this, I had the mindset of lock them up and throw away the key," Miller admitted. "I really thought we could just leave them in there and not worry. But I see now that I was wrong."
Miller was not the only one with preconceived ideas and stereotypes of what the prisoners would be like. The other ministry members described the uneasy feeling of hearing the gates close behind them the first time.
"Once I got in there though, I saw that these were people just like us," Whitmore said. "It made me realize how thin the line is at times from being in there and being out here."
On the average, prison ministry groups come in contact with around 10 percent of the prison population.
"Not only are our visits good for the guys who attend but it is good for the entire prison," Wosepka said. "And to be honest, at times I think we get more out of it than the prisoners even do."
Prison officials echoed the benefits of having volunteer groups enter Crossroads.
"I think the volunteer groups coming in have been a very positive experience," Forsman added. "We have had no complaints and no problems."
The ministry group wanted to acknowledge Warden Jim MacDonald and his allowance of volunteer organizations into Crossroads as a key to the success of such ventures.
Every member of the prison ministry had a unique tale as to why he followed the calling. For example, Lowney initially joined because a friend of his was incarcerated, and he wanted the friend to know that someone was there for him.
In the end, the reasons for why ministry members do what they do are not important. The result of their actions is what matters. While prison populations are at an all-time high, the need for rehabilitation is vital. So far, the ministry members are pleased with the changes they have seen.
"There is visible change in the prisoners, I can tell they want to be better people," Wosepka said. "They grow both in their spirituality and in their attitudes toward life in general."
The Altreya participants pointed me toward a passage in Matthew 25 in which it details how Jesus Christ would walk with prisoners and prostitutes. He would help feed those in need and provide water to those in thirst.
It is easier for people to send a man or woman to prison and then wash their hands clean than to help that troubled person out. As long as the individual is behind bars, they remain out of sight and mind. Yet these are the people that the Bible talked about helping.
Prison ministry is not for everyone and members of Altreya would not suggest that each person need to get involved. But they would encourage everyone to remember that inmates are still people, just like you and me. Prison ministries allows inmates to feed off of hope instead of the negativity that can many times dominate a prison landscape. Whether they become strong Christians or learn to treat themselves and others with decency, the truth is that they have the opportunity.
If anyone would like to share their stories or experiences of being part of a prison ministry at Crossroads Correctional Center, please contact Michael Hicks at: [email protected]
Include a brief description of your group and what it entails. Also, be sure to include contact information.
Sweat lodges and Jehovah's Witnesses are united in a mission with Catholics
I'm not so sure, it so much an interfaith as it is a group of churches vying for the attention of the same audience.
I tend to agree with RR. No way in heck a good JW is going to enter, let alone conduct a sweat lodge ceremony, nor preach along side a good Catholic. He'd have to be DF'd first!