INDIANAPOLIS - During his 16-year confinement at an Indiana prison, Buddy Stapleton had no visitors. No one from northern Indiana, where he committed his crimes, nor from the coal fields of West Virginia where he spent his youth. No one visited him.
That is not until two members of Wesley United Methodist Church on the west-side of Indianapolis drove to the Pendleton Correctional Facility northeast of Indianapolis to visit Stapleton in March of this year.
"He was working when he was told he had visitors," said DeeEllen Davis, one of the visitors from Wesley. "Because we only found out (the day before) we were approved as visitors and that night we figured out who could go, Buddy did not expect us."
Davis and Paula Easley arrived at Pendleton to begin building a relationship with Stapleton that they hoped would help him transition to life on the outside when he was released in just a few months.
The Wesley faith care team, of which Davis and Easley are members, works through Faith in Community Ministry to help Indiana offenders transition out of prison and reintegrate into society. Wesley commissioned the first care team to work with an inmate in this program.
Mary Z. Longstreth, a South Indiana Conference diaconal minister, is the Director of Faith in Community Ministry for Choices, Inc., the parent organization. This new Indianapolis-based ministry is partially funded by the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, Church and Community Ministry program.
Longstreth told Together, "Faith in Community Ministry provides a way for congregations - folks in the pews - to more comfortably and easily minister to persons who have been incarcerated. Longstreth said the church has a special mandate to serve those who are cast out of our society. "Commonly, people fear those in prison. Although some need to be in prison for a lifetime, 97 percent of those incarcerated return to our communities as neighbors. We need to understand how to relate to them, instead of shunning them or pushing them aside, saying, 'not in my neighborhood!'"
Although the inmates are under state supervision for a period following release, there are legitimate concerns about public safety in faith-based re-entry programs. Faith in Community Ministry effectively addresses this through faith care team training which was developed collaboratively with the Department of Correction.
Faith in Community Ministry dovetails with the Department of Correction's new re-entry programming entitled PLUS, which stands for Purposeful Living Units Serve. Inmates who take part in Faith and Community Ministry are volunteers who have completed programming offered through one of the PLUS units.
PLUS is a 16 month transition program in which inmates choose to learn from either character-based or faith-based materials. PLUS inmates are housed together and learn core fundamental values that focus on strengthening spiritual, moral and character development as well as the developing of life skills.
Faith in Community Ministry is divided into three phases: relationship building, community re-entry, and reintegration and reconciliation.
Six to twelve months before an inmate is released, he or can volunteer to partner with a faith care team. The inmate must be recommended by a Department of Correction chaplain or re-entry coordinator and interviewed by Faith in Community Ministry staff before being matched with a trained faith care team. The team then works to build a relationship with the inmate and the inmate's family through regular correspondence and visits.
"The strength of human relationships in the mentoring group makes this model unique," Longstreth said. "This relationship-building begins well before the inmate is released."
Longstreth said understanding the inmate and what his or her needs will be is extremely important. Wesley devoted two Sundays to educate and prepare the congregation for this ministry. More than a hundred members participated in a combined Sunday school session in which they viewed a video, asked questions and learned about the program. On another Sunday, congregation members played a board game that simulates the challenges inmates often face upon release.
During a worship service dedicated to the program, the Wesley team further engaged their congregation by posting a bulletin board covered with cards listing the needs Stapleton would have upon release. The faith care team was commissioned during this service. Following the service, all the cards were taken.
Upon Stapleton's release, two members of the care team picked him up and brought him to the church. There he met the entire care team for the first time. He then went to meet his boarding house landlord and pick up a room key. Finally, he was treated to one of his wishes - a meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
At this point, the inmate is referred to as "neighbor." During this 30-day period, the new neighbor calls a team member every day and visits face-to-face with a member at least once a week. The team sees their neighbor's immediate needs are met, and that he or she has reliable transportation to parole meetings, work, medical care and other appointments.
"For two solid weeks we had people working with him day and night," Davis said. "He had to get a state I.D., apply for a job, meet his parole officer and get a cell phone. It was hectic."
As Stapleton told a gathering to celebrate the program's one-year anniversary, "I never had a chance to take a breath. I needed a day to do nothing, a play day."
He affirmed that the Wesley team has skills, talents, as well as good temperaments and attitudes. "They have care, love and compassion. Our first meeting was touch and go. Warmth, openness and compassion come with time," Stapleton said.
The Reintegration and Reconciliation phase lasts a minimum of one year post release. During this time, monthly meetings with the full care team and at least weekly visits and calls with individual care team members help the neighbor stay focused on goals and objectives. The care team also provides monthly progress reports to the Faith in Community Ministry staff.
Since coming to Wesley UMC, Stapleton reclaimed his faith through baptism and entered membership on May 21. To date he has a job and has moved into his own apartment.
He knows his transition isn't complete. Like many offender volunteers in the program, Stapleton was classified by the Department of Correction as a violent offender. The Wesley team knew that going into it; their only requirement was that the offender not be a pedophile or sexual predator. The team knows Stapleton's past. For others who ask, he tells them he got involved in drugs and made serious mistakes. But he wants to put that all behind him and become a functioning member of society.
"I have learned to ask and accept," he told a gathering of Faith in Community Ministry supporters. "I know I'm in my honeymoon period. I had alcohol and drug problems in the past. I have learned that will power is the process of living into freedom."
"These programs are fantastic," he said, "and need to be done. It must start at the door (of the prison). It gives me tools, inspiration and motivation."
For more information about sponsoring a faith-care team, contact Mary Z. Longstreth at 317-205-8255 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ed Metzler serves as administrative assistant to Bishop Mike Coyner.