When I was 15, my mother took my sister and me on a cross-country trip to meet one of her childhood friends in Utah.
It was the longest trip the three of us had ever taken together. After my parents divorced when I was in middle school, Mom was always stretched thin from working multiple jobs and taking night classes to finish her education. The vacation was a rare treat.
When we arrived in Utah, we rolled into the driveway of a double-wide trailer, ready to meet the friend who had meant so much to Mom when she was our age. But when Mom knocked on the door, the man who answered explained Mom’s friend had gone to Salt Lake City days before and hadn’t returned.
After seven days, her cellphone had yet to ring, so we packed up and headed home.
When we arrived home, the phone started to ring at odd hours. One day I was the first one home after school, and I answered one of the mysterious calls. I was greeted by a recording: “You have a collect call from the Utah State Prison.”
That night Mom explained that her friend struggled with addiction all his life. Faced with the stress of seeing his old friend for the first time in more than 20 years (not to mention meeting her crazy, teenage children), he began using again and had been arrested.People make mistakes, our mother explained. It doesn't make them less than us. Click To Tweet
People make mistakes, our mother explained. It doesn’t make them less than us, she said.
1 in 108 in U.S. in prison
According to a 2012 study by The Sentencing Project, a not-for-profit criminal justice research and advocacy organization, 1 in every 108 people in the United States is imprisoned. One in 25 American children has a parent who is incarcerated.
Not long after my mom talked to me about her friend’s struggle with addiction, I began writing letters to a friend in prison who admits to making bad choices.
As a teenager, Curt had been in and out of juvenile detention. When he was 19, he landed himself in a situation that changed his life forever. Now 38, he has spent half of his life not only behind bars, but in a cell by himself.
When I first thought about writing him, I was scared. Then I thought of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:36: “’I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’” There must be a reason Curt had been on my heart all those years.
I once sent him a letter asking if he had advice how others could support his sisters and brothers behind bars.
How we can help
“The number one thing a Christian in here needs is encouragement,” he said. “The walls, the rules, the chains, the isolation, the sensory deprivation and everything else are designed to break a human being down.”
Next, we can support those in prison through prayer, he added.
“Lastly,” he said, “is fellowship—like what we do,” referring to our letter-writing. “It makes me feel good knowing someone was thinking about me. It lifts me up.”
Sara Carson is associate editor of Gather magazine. This blog is an excerpt of an article that ran in the April 2016 issue of Gather.
To learn more
If you’d like to learn more or find out how you can get involved in a ministry of accompaniment with our sisters and brothers in prison, visit ELCA.org to download Called to Hear: A Study Guide, a five-session group study curriculum based on the criminal justice social statement adopted at the 2013 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. If you’re interested in volunteering with a prison worshiping community, you can find more information about similar organizations in your area at prisoncongregations.org.