The Art of Being A Prison Pastor During a Pandemic
I have sat down to write this blog almost a 100 times and each time I give up after a couple of minutes. As I’m sure you can relate, each day of this pandemic has been met by a roller coaster of emotions and I feel that I’m never quite catching up to myself to have a somewhat processed perspective on how rapidly life is changing. My mind keeps coming back to a passage in Job- “God gives and God takes away” and that reality has never been more true. In one weeks’ time I experienced how quickly it can be taken away.
For the last year and half I have been working at the WCCW to establish and develop Hagar’s Community Church. All of my energy has been going into creating rhythms and practices that this new congregation can live into. Two core pillars of the community included gathering every Saturday for Worship as one large body of faith and sharing communion during that service. From one Saturday to the next all of that evaporated and a whole new reality has been established.
March 7th was the last worship service with HCC before the Covid-19 health crisis. The following week was when everything started changing- Governor Inslee restricted groups to remain under 50 people and everyone began to retreat into their homes to shelter in place and social distance. On that Thursday, I received notification from the WCCW that all programming was cancelled and I would be notified when I could return. I was
permitted by the prison to send worship resources to the women but for two weeks I had no communication with any of my congregants. During the two weeks I had no idea how long the separation would last and my biggest fear was being shut out for the remainder of the year.
Prayer became a staple for me. I created in my living room a prayer station full of candles that became a place to channel all of my worries, fears, and hopes. I also reached out to the community of people who support and love Hagar’s Community Church and asked people to join me in prayer. I told the women of HCC through the worship resources I was sending out to join me in praying every day at 5:00. Those of us on the outside began virtually meeting on Saturdays at 5:00 to pray for ourselves and for all the women incarcerated at the WCCW. On the evening of March 25th I was feeling incredibly hopeless- I had heard nothing from the WCCW and so in a quiet moment of desperation I lit every candle at my prayer station- every candle was a prayer for Hagar’s Community Church- a prayer that I would get a sign from God about the future. The next morning, I received an email from the WCCW- God answered my prayers. After a two week quarantine there were no cases of Covid-19 at the WCCW and the administration wanted to discuss how to have “some” religious programming.
The administration and I came up with a strategy to give the most amount of women at the WCCW the opportunity to attend worship while maintaining safety and social distancing. I would hold one worship service per living unit- a total of nine services. Three a day on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. This schedule began on the weekend of Palm Sunday and we have been in this routine since. I was also given permission to do rounds on all the units which means that I am able to be a pastoral support to all of my congregation.
In person worship with rules for social distancing means that everything feels a bit strange. To begin with, each group is on the small side (5-20 people) and all of us are wearing masks at all times while also maintaining six feet of distance from one another. Singing is not allowed - meaning praise and worship is off limits. It is my experience that it is impossible to preach with a mask on. It is hard to breath and it is awkward to communicate effectively. Celebrating Communion is definitely not permitted. Adapting to this new context became a necessity. I quickly realized trying to have a traditional worship service just highlighted how much loss we were all experiencing.
In light of all this we have created a new rhythm to each worship service. The first 20 minutes of the service I tell them this is their time to choose an activity that helps them feel close to God. They can choose from options of: water color, coloring a mandala, meditating, reading their bible, using a finger labyrinth, and writing. I play worshipful music in the background and together we allow our souls a moment to breathe. Then we come together and for a time of prayer and I am intentional to make sure to leave as much room as needed for every prayer request to be lifted up. The remainder of our time is spent doing a Bible Study. We are currently working through a study by The Bible Project on Spiritual Beings. This Bible Study has led to some really fun and enlightening discussions.
I have appreciated all the people who have reached out inquiring of HCC during this time and asking what people can do to support all the members of Hagar’s Community Church. What I have learned from this crisis is that I am not the one in control of tomorrow- that job is solely in the hands of our Creator- but I have also learned that prayer is powerful, and necessary. I would kindly ask that you continue to keep Hagar’s Community Church in your prayers and all of the women incarcerated at the WCCW. Pray that the WCCW continues to have no Covid-19 cases and that the women remain safe and healthy. Please pray for their continued perseverance through this health crisis. Their lives have been disrupted and inconvenienced in ways that are hard for those of us on the outside to understand. Imagine if the only time you were not wearing a mask was when you were in bed- and this rule was being enforced by law enforcement living in your home.
I also invite you to join our weekly virtual prayer vigil, ever Saturday at 5:00pm- during these meetings I give updates and often opportunities arrives for folks to do different activities to support HCC. Here is the Zoom link to join: https://us02web.zoom.us/j/263752381
Over the past several months a song I remember singing in church as a child has been the song in my heart- Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus. The simple words of this song capture what I have been learning about myself throughout this odd and strange time in world history. I have been learning that my role is to place my hope and trust in Jesus and keep walking forward doing the best with what I have and lean on the promise that God will meet me in the midst of it all.
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I've proved Him o'er and o'er Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! Oh, for grace to trust Him more!