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Thanking God for Prison Congregations

May 07, 2016 at 6:48 PM

By Rev. Wayne Gallipo, PCA Board Member

I worship regularly with the men of St. Dysmas Lutheran Church at the South Dakota State Penitentiary where Rev. Bob Chell serves as pastor.   It is the friendliest and most welcoming congregation I have ever worshipped with.  After the somewhat intimidating process of entering the prison and realizing you have no control of letting yourself out, as soon as you enter the chapel you are greeted with the smiling faces of the men who serve on the inside church council, who genuinely welcome you with a handshake and thank you for worshipping with them and your anxiety level goes down considerably.  As the rest of the prisoners filter in they too are quick to shake your hand and thank you for taking the time to be with them for worship and you realize you are among God’s children, your brothers in Christ.

One of the powerful aspects of the PCA model is the interaction between visitors and the prisoners.  It is a rare day that I leave there without learning something new or gaining a new insight on scripture or church from one of the men in worship.  One Thursday evening after worship I was visiting with a prisoner who was clutching his well worn Bible.  He began to talk about justice and said, “Pastor, I don’t need justice; I’ve received justice.  I’m serving my time.  What I need is mercy and in this place I’m assured mercy is given to me by God’s grace.”  These men are created in the image of God just like you.  They have made mistakes that they are now serving time for but they also know that in God’s kingdom grace is freely given; even to a convicted felon!

Visitors and prisoners learn from each other and love and support one another in these prison congregations.  I believe the men and women who worship in a prison congregation go back to their own congregations with a different attitude about the men and women who are serving time in prison.  They also go back with fresh ideas to help improve the worship experience in their congregations.  They all certainly learn about being genuinely welcoming. 

There is one other thing I love about the worship at St. Dysmas;  the men sing, and they sing loudly with all their hearts praising God with their voices whether they can carry a tune or not.  It is just wonderful! I thank God for prison congregations and the pastors and lay leaders who serve them all over the country and I thank God for the powerful ministry of Prison Congregations of America.