Recently I have written several grant applications which has given me the space to write about the mission and theology of Hagar's Community Church. Below are some of these reflections on our call, our work, and our theological understanding of why we do what we do.
The mission statement for Hagar’s Community Church is to be a Sanctuary for God’s Beloved Exiles at the Washington Correction Center for Women (WCCW). To afford the individuals who are incarcerated at the WCCW their own Christian community through which they might explore their spirituality and encounter the proclamation and experience of God’s love.
In Matthew 25 we learn that the people of God are called to visit the prisoner to find Christ. We also remember from Ephesians chapter two that in Christ all can become part of the household of God and no longer remain the stranger. Because of the call to know God and make God known, especially among the incarcerated, the Presbytery of Olympia has planted Hagar’s Community Church at the WCCW. This ministry walks alongside incarcerated women so they may actively seek their own spiritual connection to God, be empowered in their journey of healing, experience fellowship in a community of faith, and learn a new sense of belonging, to God and among the people of God, in and out of the corrections center.
A Theological goal of Hagar’s Community Church is to be firmly rooted in a reformed theological identity. Meaning that our core understanding is that one cannot earn God’s redemption, rather it is freely given through the grace of Jesus Christ- that proper belief is not a requirement to belong. Within the fences of a prison this theological under-girding is refreshing and transformative.
Every week in Worship we recite this Liturgy:
L: On This Holy day let us remember that we are not who the world says we are- Our Identity is deeper than that
A: I am a child of God… Holy and Beloved… At this Holy Table, we are reminded of who we really are
L: Friends, who are you?
A: I am a child of God, Holy and Beloved
Bryan Stevens in his book “Just Mercy” sums up how a reformed theological understanding has the potential to change how we as a country treat those who are incarcerated. He says: “You are not the worst mistake you have made…. If you lied you are more than a liar, if you stole you are more than a thief and even if you murdered someone you are more than a murderer. The injustice of our incarceration system is that we have allowed fear, distance, and anger to shape the way we treat the most vulnerable among us. Our country has the highest incarceration rate in world- we have become a nation who throws people away without much thought, and have lost our capacity to be Merciful. Mercy is a mirror, it is what you give to others who don’t deserve it, Mercy is helping individual figure out the more of them that they are and calling them into that reality. And hoping that others in our community will do the same for us.
I have found that it is significantly different to plant a congregation inside a prison rather than doing a “prison ministry.” The difference is that this congregation belongs to the women of the WCCW and they are empowered to make decisions about its future and mission. It is also different in that the women do not have to share their pastor with another congregation, rather they have their own pastor who is uniquely trained to work in their context. Seeking to provide a sacred home to the women incarcerated at the WCCW so that these extraordinary women with unusual, human, raw stories continue to be fed Christ’s bread of life – through study and through the Sacraments.
Hagar’s Community Church has the ability to be transformational in that it is giving the women incarcerated at the WCCW their own spiritual home to call their own. Many women have said they “never imagined having a church home while incarcerated” and that this is the one time each week they “forget they are incarcerated.” Our reformed theology under-girding all we do at Hagar’s Community Church is offering a place of sanctuary to women who are exiled and living most people’s worst nightmares. It is transformational to proclaim that women who are incarcerated have had a difficult past- but are wonderfully made in the image of God and have so much to offer the greater church.
It is transformational to plant a congregation inside a correction facility- and for the greater church to learn to be nimble and flexible. In Corrections the main priorities are Safety, Security, and Control. It is odd to say- but these ideals are in direct opposition to the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus teaches us to love with abandon, turn the other cheek, advocate for the least of these. Therefore to plant a church inside a corrections environment takes a lot of trust in the Holy Spirit and a lot of patience as the foundation is made. However, the effort is truly worth it.
It is transformational to plant a congregation that will always be made up of only women. The way the women relate to one another, and the way they relate to the Bible and the church, has a particularly feminine spirit to it and we believe as this grows and develops will be a beacon to the church universal of new ways that a Church can be.