A commentary and invitation

By Mary Z. Longstreth

The Indiana Plainfield Reentry Education Facility (PREF) is a short term prison residence of nearly 400 criminally convicted adult men outside of Indianapolis designed to prepare persons for their return to societal community life.

This experimental transition facility is surrounded only by a high wire fence and coiled barbed wiring not a high stone wall. Its residents will return to neighborhood life in a few months. It's a pattern of choice for me to frequently share in Sunday morning worship in order to stretch my life and faith boundaries on this spacious campus.

It may be a dramatic change for some to worship in the prison chapel. There, without ornate faith symbols, an organ, formal liturgy, and robed choirs, one perceives the Holy Spirit and God's family differently. Inside the prison chapel there's little to focus on, but the presentation of the Word through a simple worship setting and the small gathered group sharing God's glory and life struggles as persons banned from family and "normal" society.

I'm humbled to participate in this community. It's a faith stretching experience I've appreciated, although it's not my accustomed style. In prison worship it's the personally spoken confessions, the telling of God's blessings found through the week, and the shared hopes of heart yearnings that brings the community members closer together. Shared worship socially equalizes the congregation "insiders" and "outsiders" non-judgmentally.

Although PREF residents in the sanctuary sit scattered form one another - a defensive behavior learned in traditional prisons - worshippers arriving from the outside are gratefully received either by the welcoming words of greeters or in quiet shyness. The guest worshippers represent what's real about life outside of prison.

Outside prison's wall, in many congregations with which I am familiar, the gathered are usually those socially similar, familiar, good and comfortable people. We who worship outside prison walls don't readily reveal amid the fellowship of worshipers our mistrust, personal fears and weaknesses, or life's deep pains and faith dependent hopes. We may think doing so keeps us safely distanced from others' negative attitudes or judgments. More of us so-called "outsiders" should go into prison. There one can challenge interior walls that divide one from the self, one's neighbors and God. Stereotypes of those incarcerated will fall as God welcomes all with love and people here can become worship friends. When God meets us in prison, what is there to fear?

As a Church & Community Worker of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries, it has been my joy to nurture this ministry for worship. The idea, sparked by few prison residents requesting a weekly Christian Sunday morning worship service, found a PREF volunteer beginning as student at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis willing to assist us. This CTS intern, North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis and the staff at the Correction collaborated together to begin this ministry. Now in its third year, this worship service at PREF attracts from 30 to 40 residents each Sunday. PREF and Faith in Community Ministry invite people from any community congregation to share this prison-site worship opportunity.

This ministry hopes to develop a sustainable structure for this weekly worship as prison and outside community worshippers flow in and out of this congregation's life. The open hearts, open minds, open doors at PREF invite you to worship here.

Contact me if you are interested in worshipping a Sunday at the PREF chapel.

Mary Z. Longstreth serves as a Church and Community Worker and director of Faith in Community Ministry in Indianapolis. She is a deaconess of the UMC and can be reached by phone at 317-205-8255 or by e-mail at mzlongstreth@ChoicesTeam.org.