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I Was in Prison and You Visited Me

“I was in prison and you visited me . . . “

After serving six years in prison for a felony, Greg was a free man. He was released to a small town in California to serve his parole. He had the basics to start his new life: a place to live, and food and medical assistance. There was just one thing missing: a spiritual home.

In those first weeks of freedom, when the release and reintegration into society were still a shock to his system, Greg made it a priority to “come and see” the Orthodox Church.

He had learned about the Orthodox faith while in prison through Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry (OCPM), an agency of the Assembly of Bishops of the United States.

Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry proclaims Christ to men and women who are incarcerated, many of whom are being introduced to the Orthodox Church for the first time. For Orthodox Christians whose lives have been upended by their crimes and prison sentence, OCPM helps them to return to the Faith, offering forgiveness and reconciliation. As a result, families are reunited, marriages are healed, and thousands of incarcerated men and women have a new sense of peace and restored order in their lives. 

OCPM serves the spiritual needs of incarcerated men and women through a variety of ways. We correspond with thousands of prisoners and provide them with books, Bibles, pamphlets and icons. We catechize them in the Orthodox faith through special correspondence courses. We train Orthodox priests and laypersons to personally visit and counsel them in prison. And we lobby correctional facilities around the country to recognize the Orthodox faith.

With no car, and only Google to give him directions, Greg took a series of buses and walked two miles to an Orthodox parish where he experienced his first Divine Liturgy. A parishioner welcomed him and asked him how he had learned about Orthodoxy. Greg hesitated but the warmth of the man’s welcome encouraged him to be honest and he admitted that he had first learned about the Orthodox Church while in prison. Without missing a beat, the parishioner offered to give Greg a tour of the church and introduce him to the priest.

The warmth of that welcome was everything to Greg, who still felt deeply ashamed of his crimes. Had the man rejected Greg, Greg may well have rejected the Orthodox Church. 

If a convicted felon walked into your parish, would you welcome him? 

In the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, our Lord sets out clearly the conditions for inheriting the Kingdom of Heaven. We satisfy the hungry and thirsty; we take in the stranger; we clothe the naked; and we visit the sick and those who are in prison. 

We may find it easy to perform most of these commandments, but when was the last time you entered a correctional facility to visit a prisoner? 

Thousands of men and women are languishing in the battlefield that is prison. Many have experienced the limits of what non-Orthodox ministries offer. They suspect there is more but they don’t know where to find it.

OCPM visits and meets prisoners where they are, with the full Truth that is the Orthodox Faith. Every year, we process thousands of letters from prisoners and personally respond to each one by speaking to their particular situation. We maintain relationships with prisoners across multiple prison transfers and we assist them in finding an Orthodox parish upon their release.

Oftentimes, a lack of spiritual direction becomes evident for prisoners when they are released. They may have a place to live, a job, and access to mental health services. But without a supportive spiritual community and a repentant understanding of what landed them in a prison cell in the first place, their freedom is many times difficult to sustain. This is an important contributing factor to the absurdly high recidivism rate for ex-prisoners in the United States. According to the Department of Justice, 83% of prisoners released in 2005 across 30 states were arrested again within nine years of their release. 

Today, Greg is still attending that same Orthodox parish and he is now looking for a fulltime job. Finding a welcoming Orthodox parish centered him in his release. But he would not have found out this spiritual centering had our Church and OCPM not been there to minister to him in his darkest hours in prison. 

Please find out more about how you and your parish can have a vital ministry to incarcerated men and women by visiting www.theocpm.org.

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