"Pastors should be as familiar with the inside of the local jails and prisons as they are the local hospitals." United Methodist bishop Ken Carder--then a young pastor, fresh out of seminary--heard a man utter these words in the 1960s, and they changed the trajectory of his life and ministry.
Before this, Carder had never been into a prison before. Let's be honest, who does visit prisons? As he puts it so well, this world he decided to enter is “a world often hidden from and ignored by congregations and pastors." There are a few, faithful exceptions, but on the whole, this clear scriptural mandate is woefully neglected by the churches in our society--a society so startlingly and disproportionally full of incarcerated or paroled individuals.
And while the Church's ministries here are neglected, he believes the stakes are incredibly high: “faithfulness to Christ's mandate and mission, renewal of the church's witness and ministry, the theological integrity of the church's proclamation, the spiritual vitality of pastors, and the well-being of more than 2 million inmates and their families.”
Bishop Carder discusses this and more in an article in The Christian Century from a few years back. It's a short piece, where he shares a few stories of his ministry and relationships with incarcerated men and women, makes some practical observations here and there for those who want to enter into prison ministry, and tries to show how he met God (the one who said, “I was in prison and you visited me”) in prison. You can read it all online here.
If Carder is right about what is at stake in this matter, then U.S. Christians simply cannot ignore the prisons and our call to go there. If you want to learn more about prison ministry, this article may be a good place to start. For anyone who is interested, I'll also try to make more resources available here on the blog in the future.