Church of the Damascus Road (1)
We Are Living Stones
Feb 19, 2017
By Margaret O'Neal, Lakewood, Washington
It was on September 10 of last year that the Living Stones Congregation at the Washington Correction Center in Shelton celebrated its 10th anniversary. My daughter Connie and I attended their evening service along with Bishop Jaech and members of the Living Stones board.
Connie and I attended because my husband, Pastor John O’Neal, was one of the founders of this congregation. You see, many years before, in the late 1960’s John served time at the Correction Center. I met him in 1971 when he was on parole. Even though there were 26 years difference in our ages, we had a wonderful life together. What I learned about John was that he was a dreamer, a man who had creative energy and wanted that energy to work for good. He knew he had committed a grave sin, and so, living in the forgiveness and grace of Jesus Christ, with the help of God and people who cared for him, he was able to turn his life around and work for the good of others.
I am often reminded of the story in Genesis where Joseph meets his brothers many years after they had sold him to traders who were on their way to Egypt. They had wanted to get rid of this favored younger brother but then they had no idea what had happened to him. It was many years later during a drought that they found themselves bowing down to him and pleading for food for the sake of their families from the very man they sent away.
Do you remember Joseph’s words to his brothers in Genesis 50:20? “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…” Sometimes the pain and anguish in our lives makes us turn inward so that we become full of self-pity. We want to blame everyone else for what happened to us. Sometimes, however, that pain helps us to work for the sake of others.
John was one who took what he had learned in a very difficult situation and turned it into good. It was in 1981 then that John met the chaplain at the Correction Center. Pastor Ray Lester was fascinated by John’s story and invited him to return to the prison and enter the chaplaincy program. Walking through those slamming metal gates in the morning knowing he would be able to leave at night and come home was a powerful experience for him. It had not always been so when he was incarcerated there. In time he realized he loved working with the men, encouraging them to make new lives for themselves.
It was in the next years that John met Pastor Ed Nesselhuf, the director of Prison Congregations of America. Pastor Ed would come to visit us and together the two men would visit prison chaplains, the Director of the Department of Corrections and the Synod staff. Planting a church in a prison takes a lot of time and energy and the willingness of people to work together.
Do you know what living stones are? It is the priesthood of all believers, whose faith is in Christ, the chief corner stone,and who then work together to spread the gospel. We are living stones. We are the body of Christ. Many people and many congregations have worked together to help build this community of faith.
The next time your congregation is invited to attend worship [inside the walls], I hope you will take advantage of this opportunity because you never know what surprises and blessings there might be for you and the men who are gathered there. God is at work indeed in the hearts and lives of those who have been lost but are now found.