Into the Light

May 01, 2017

by Sarah Estes, PCA Board Member

When you walk into South Dakota State Penitentiary it’s like walking into any other prison.  Get a pat down, grab a body alarm, walk through two heavy metal doors that lock behind you, twice. On the inside you see a cafeteria in front of you and the entrance to a housing unit to the left, enclosed by bars from floor to ceiling.  It’s not a pretty sight. It is cold and stark and barren. You go around the corner and up some stairs, through a door that leads to the space where the men of St. Dysmas Lutheran Church go to worship, and the dark becomes light.

As soon as you walk through the door you are greeted by men smiling as brightly as the sun shining through the glorious stained glass windows.  They welcome you; shake your hand, and thank you sincerely for coming to worship with them.  Most of them don’t get many visitors and you might be their only contact with the world outside.  The sanctuary is breathtaking, not at all what you would expect to see inside a prison.  The six stained glass windows depicting Christ and religious symbols, covering two of the walls, are framed by hand-carved wood which coordinates perfectly with the three wooden crosses standing on the altar. The most spectacular thing about these beautiful pieces is that they were all crafted by one of the penitentiary’s own inmates, Gary Gurwell.  He also made the two hundred wooden chairs that stand in faultless rows in the nave.  I wonder how many broken men have sat in the chairs over the years, and how many have given themselves to the Savior sitting there. 

St. Dysmas is more beautiful than most churches I have visited on the outside.  It is a sanctuary in the truest sense of the word; a sacred place where the men can lay down their hearts for the Lord without worry or caution.  The aesthetic beauty is only a small part of what makes your first visit to St. Dysmas so memorable.  You instantly became aware of the pride the men in the congregation take in their worship space and in each other.  You can see how much time the praise band and the choir spend on picking their songs and practicing.  Each man is quick to help when another is in need.  They all exemplify brotherhood by encouraging one another and participating joyfully in every aspect of the service.  It’s refreshing and hope-filled, just as church should be.

The question has been posed to me many times, “Why volunteer in prison?” As if I’m wasting my time and energy on people who are unworthy.  My answer is always the same.  It is because I find God in prison, in the face of every person I’ve had the privilege to meet there.   I bet if you visited St. Dysmas yourself, you would find God there too, like so many others, greeted by light in the darkest of places.

1 John 1: 5-9

This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all[a] sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

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