Sunday, November 24, 2013

Prison Ministry

Last week we attended Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church for the first time.  Katie asked if we could come back this week, so we did.

We indulge our child, both Will and me, but in different ways.  We support each other's differences.  I smile, shake my head, and look away when I see him buying her candy I don't think she needs.  Will lets me take Katie to church, thanking God he has to work on Sunday mornings so he has an excuse when Katie asks why he doesn't come to church with us.  Raised in a hardcore fundamentalist Christian church, the kind that had fake blood dripping from Jesus on the cross during the children's Easter pageant, Will simply says, "I had enough church growing up," when Katie asks.

I don't think of myself as a church-y kind of person either.  My family is full of believers, but we have a spotty church-attendance record.  My dad was raised Methodist and my mom was raised Episcopalian.  Dad's mom played the organ at church, so I think he grew up going to church, but he's never talked about it to me.  Dad's a very keep-it-to-yourself kind of Christian.  Mom and her brother were expected to go to Sunday School and her brother sang in the church choir, but their parents stayed home most Sunday mornings.

When mom married her first husband right out of high school, she converted to Catholicism.  She says of the time that she really enjoyed being Catholic.  She got the kids ready each Sunday and took them to church.  Sometimes her husband would show up, sometimes not.  If he did he'd stand at the back of the church where the others who arrive late and want to be first to leave stood.  Some of the same guys he'd been drinking with at the bar the previous night.

When Mom divorced her first husband, she left the Catholic Church.  She married my dad and they started going to Wyatt Park Christian Church in St. Joseph, Missouri where we lived at the time.  One of my sisters got married there.  Several of my siblings sang in the choir there.  All I remember of it was begging my mom to let me go to the nursery each Sunday morning because sitting still with all that grownup talk and organ music was soooooooo boooooooooring, and she'd say no, I was too old, every time, so I'd grab one of those little half sized pencils you get at churches and libraries and I'd draw pictures on the back of the church bulletin to pass the time.  I liked it when the grownups would take communion and put their tiny glasses into the slots in front of them.  I knew I was not allowed to drink from them because I hadn't been officially baptised.  I wasn't old enough to receive baptism at that church, or some such rule.

Mom claims she baptised me in the kitchen sink when I was an infant, but I think that's called giving your baby a bath.

We left Wyatt Park Christian Church when we moved to Kansas City one month after I started first grade.  It took Mom and Dad five years to find a church they finally liked, Pine Ridge Presbyterian Church, just a couple miles from our new home in suburban Kansas City.  Another one of my sisters got married in that church.  But by the time we got around to joining the church, during my last month of sixth grade, Dad announced we were moving across town, to Overland Park, Kansas.

My parents weren't so devoted to Pine Ridge to bother driving the 25 minutes to go to church there anymore.  I was actually glad.  Despite my belief that I was somehow less of a Christian than the other kids at the church who had been brought up in it, some of those girls were really mean.  I remember one day after our Sunday School lesson going into the bathroom and listening to three girls my age talking badly about another girl.  I remember thinking to myself, "I don't think Jesus would like the way they're talking behind her back" but I was too shy to say it out loud.  I wasn't confident enough in my Christianity to talk to a member of the church.  One of the girls used the word "fuck."  I was shocked it didn't cause God to strike lightening onto the church roof above, but what did I know?  Just what I'd gotten from sitting on the couch with my mom every Christmas watching "Jesus of Nazareth" on TV.  Maybe church members get a free pass from God when it comes to swearing.

My parents and I went to a nondenominational Christian church two blocks away a couple of times once we moved to Overland Park.  But after the Sunday my dad fell asleep during the sermon, we never went back.  

Mom and Dad would watch this preacher on TV who had some glass castle in California or something, but I spent my teen years sleeping-in on Sundays.  The only times I entered a church was when I went to a wedding or a funeral.  Except for the one time I went to church with one of my sisters when I was thirteen.  It was the first time I'd ever seen someone speaking in tongues.  There's no way in hell someone could fall asleep during that church service, but I felt scared.  Like how I felt when I saw "The Exorcist" at way-too-young of an age.  I wanted to sleep with the lights on for a week after both events.

So by the time I was thirteen, I'd convinced myself that church wasn't for me. I still felt moved by the story of Jesus and how he preached love and taking care of those less fortunate and all that good stuff Mom read to me from her Bible.  She skipped most of the Old Testament because she knows I'm too squeamish for slavery and rape and sacrificing babies and such, and genealogy bores me.  I felt moved by the story of Jesus, but I also felt moved by Harper Lee's fictional work To Kill a Mockingbird.  I began reading Kurt Vonnegut novels and was turned on to the phrase "secular humanist".  I liked it.  But it never felt entirely right, because when it comes down to it, I have been brought to my knees in dark times of my life and praying to God has helped me get through it.

After Mom divorced Dad when I was twenty-one, she and I joined Unity Church of Overland Park.  It was liberal and uplifting.  Something Mom wouldn't feel hypocritical about attending while also reading works about reincarnation by Shirley MacLaine and about other spiritual paths by Deepak Chopra.  It was a Christian church, but it focused less on a literal interpretation of the Bible and more on enriching each person's spiritual journey by finding meaning in all sorts of metaphorical texts.

But then the pastor we both liked up and moved and Mom and I started going to church less and less.  Mom remarried a Catholic man, got her first marriage annulled, and converted back to Catholicism.  I married a non-churchgoer who's open minded.  A handful of times I took Katie to an African-American church when she showed an interest in gospel music, but when they started asking for large donations to send the pastor and his wife on a cruise, I quit setting my alarm on Sundays.  I just couldn't imagine Jesus wanted my money to go toward paying for a Caribbean cruise for two fortunate souls when there were so many less fortunate souls around that could use the money for things like food and shelter.

Whenever questions from Katie about God or Jesus or morality would arise, I'd preface my answers with, "Well some people think..." and end the lesson with, "but I don't think that way and not everyone does."  I tried to teach my child that God is too big of a concept for anyone to know completely with uncertainty, but mostly the kid just wanted to know if she'd get to see her Uncle Pat and her dead dog Beau in Heaven some day.  She seemed more satisfied when my answer was, "Yes, I think so" than when it was, "Well some people think so but how can anyone know what the afterlife is like if you have to be dead to experience it?"  Maybe when she's a teenager she'll appreciate her mother's moral ambiguity, but for now, at age seven, she wants easy answers.  She wants to believe that she'll see her dead loved ones once again, and so do I, so I don't question her beliefs.

Despite my uncertainty and disinterest in organized religion, I didn't hesitate to take Katie to church when she asked me to.  Recently her Grandpa Bob, my step-father, passed away.  Attending his funeral and talking about his death sparked an interest in religion in her.  She asked if we could go to church and I said yes, not because I want to fill my daughter's head with dogma but because I want her to experience life in whatever way interests her.  I will cater to all of the curiosities she has that I can.  I want to expand her mind in a multitude of ways.  Thus, I rarely say no to the girl.  I'm a firm believer in spoiling young minds.

Turns out, it's been a big Yes experience for me as well.   It's only been two weeks, so I'm trying not to jump to conclusions, but something feels right about this church.  I never thought I'd feel comfortable in a church.  I thought I'd take my kid to humor her, to educate her, to support her.  But I never expected to feel supported myself.

You see, I'm a big liberal underdog lover who feels called to fight for social justice.  I write letters to my representatives.  I sign petitions.  I use social media to blog about my political opinions and share petitions for my friends to sign.  But I hardly ever go anywhere where I'm around like minded individuals.  I'm kind of a loner.  I prefer sitting in my basement writing out my thoughts to trying to hold a conversation with another person whose talking interrupts my train of thought.  I'm a terrible conversationalist.  I'm either silent and my mind is wandering or I'm rambling on and on, hogging the conversation.  So the few times I've joined organizations to try to get my social justice fix, for example, when I worked for Greenpeace one summer in college, I enjoyed the cause and the people, but I never felt comfortable enough to maintain a long term relationship with them.

Something is different about Grace Covenant.  They really seem to care about helping people and living the way Jesus lived: by loving people.  All people.  Free from judgment.  With grace.

Here's a quote from the "about" section of Grace Covenant's Facebook page:

"Seeking to experience God in the everyday and in the breathtaking... all are welcome... all."

I can see myself really flourishing at a place like this.  There are so many opportunities to help people, it's a little overwhelming.  This church really focuses on social justice issues.  Today during the adult education time while Katie was in Sunday School they had three speakers from Atonement Prison Ministry talking about all the work they do to help inmates and former-inmates find value in their lives.

One of the coolest partnerships is with a nonprofit organization called Arts in Prison, Inc.  They "provide arts education to inmates.  Through the creative process, inmates can retain or reclaim the positive aspects of their humanity before rejoining neighbors or family in the community."

Here's information from the "Our Values" section of the brochure they passed out:

"We believe that it is possible for inmates to change their lives.

"We believe that most inmates need help, role models, new skills, and new attitudes in order to change.

"We believe that powerful experiences through various art forms can help inmates transform their thinking and aspirations.

"We believe that involving trained community volunteers with inmates during arts classes and programs provides effective mentoring that helps inmates shape their behavior patterns."

I'm going to wait and see before I volunteer myself.  I have a feeling there are going to be other opportunities for ministries I'll feel called to join.  But I figured I can help out by spreading the word.  That's my gift and I can use it for good.

Arts in Prison needs monetary contributions, donations of books for prison libraries, and volunteers.  For more information on how you can get involved with this wonderful organization, here's their contact information:

Arts in Prison, Inc.
PO Box 23502
Overland Park, KS 66283
(913) 403-0229

May peace be with you.