Written by Courtney McHill, United Methodist Pastor
My dad was the city attorney for Lebanon, OR for many years as well as having his own practice. When I was a little girl, it was almost a fun game to walk through the city jail with him and see if anyone was hanging out there. Part of me was a little bit frightened that we might encounter a criminal but part of me was just intrigued by people who would be in the city jail. In addition, I felt pretty safe surrounded by police officers I knew well and my dad close by. As kids we learned a lot about the downsides of the justice system through our dad. We learned that there is always a chance that people are wrongly accused and we were taught that 100 percent of the time, people are human. Humans can connect in some way. We often had home discussions about justice, fairness, and when it doesn’t work out.
Later on as a pastor, I have been privileged to receive tours in our nearby prison. I have also come into contact with prisoners or former prisoners. When I went on a tour of the prison just down the road, I was humbled to see all sorts of people searching for God, all in a condensed space. Some might argue that God doesn’t show up behind bars and I would argue that those folks are just afraid that God might just show up.
We have a few people in our congregation that believe this to their core. They know that God is bigger than anything we could ever put up to shield people. They know that God shows up in the most unexpected and forgotten places. They know that sometimes we are needed to pray with people who have been wounded, advocate for people who thirst of justice, be with people seeking redemption and even just show goodness to people who can’t find a path out of the bars. These are the people that see today’s Acts story and calls it their own. These are the people that see Paul and Silas as representatives of where God might just take us as well and God is there anyway. These are the people that go to the prisons anyway when no one else will.
And they will meet Christ there in the most unexpected ways. Christ shows up in prison as well because Christ knows what it means to be imprisoned. We follow a criminal by Roman standards who knows the human experience inside and out. Why wouldn’t we look for him there?
Quotes for the Week
“It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.” ― Nelson Mandela
“Christianity is a religion founded by men in deep trouble with the law, men familiar with the inside of prisons, whose message was ‘the last shall be first, and the first last.’” – Jack Miles
“The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” ― Dorothy Day
“During the first day, curious at having outsiders among them, a long stream of inmates came over and talked with me. Remarkably, according to what they told me, nearly every inmate in the prison didn’t do it. Several thousand people had been locked up unjustly and, by an incredible coincidence, all in the same prison. On the other hand, they knew an awful lot about how to knife somebody.” ― Alan Alda
Acts 16:16-34 (NRSV) One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave-girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, ‘These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.’ She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, ‘I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.
But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the market-place before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, ‘These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.’ The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, ‘Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.’ The jailercalled for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas.Then he brought them outside and said, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They answered, ‘Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.’ They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
John 17: 20-26 (NRSV) I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. Father, I desire that those also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory, which you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. “Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
Questions for the Week
Have you had any connection with the prison system?
Would you expect to find Christ in prison? Why or why not?
Have you thought about this as a potential ministry?