When I Was In Prison, You Visited Me
Thursday Ministry reaches out to men on the inside

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2005 ( Download PDF of entire publication)

Thursday Ministry volunteers (from left) Sid Anderson, Carl and Leona Nelson and Tom Mahon after a visit with inmates at the Dixon Correctional Center last June. The group, which hails from St. James Lutheran Church in Forreston, also helps with the Storybook Project.The first young man arrives a few minutes early.

He leans against the mortar of one of the many red brick buildings that defines his environment of walls, razor wire and fences at the Dixon Correctional Center (DCC). It’s hot in the afternoon sun and known to be stuffy inside with no air conditioning, but it doesn’t matter — he has more than a detached interest in being here. So, he waits, folded pass in hand, looking forward to the meeting of the bi-monthly Thursday Ministry program for inmates.

Soon, a dozen other uniformed inmates in “prison blues,” and a few volunteers in street clothes from outside the gates, converge. The door is unlocked by the staff member who accompanies the group, the passes acknowledged, and all file into an activity area that some of the prisoners compare to their old Sunday school rooms.

For the next 90 minutes, the four volunteers who have come this particular Thursday will chat with the inmates as friends. Some have known each other for years. They will help the men complete a craft project and share their faith through Bible verses and devotions, inspiration and example. The visitors promise another group of volunteers will come again in two more weeks, and the men count on it. One of the prisoners describes the volunteers as “an awesome family.”

The Thursday Ministry was organized 14 years ago by the Women of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (WELCA). Its original purpose was to share God’s love and word with the women prisoners who were incarcerated at Dixon Correctional Center. There wasn’t anything like it in place for male inmates at that time.

Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) began managing the program in 1998. When the women were transferred out of the Dixon facility in 2001, the prison administration agreed to let the volunteers continue sharing their faith with a group of male inmates housed away from the general prison population. According to Jane Otte, executive director of LSSI’s Prisoner and Family Ministry, “The Thursday Ministry is a unique way to create community with prisoners and to see Christ in the stranger.”

Betty Stralow, program coordinator, pushed for the men’s group when the women left DCC. As program coordinator, Stralow recruits volunteers not only for the Thursday Ministry but also for the Storybook Project — a volunteer program that enables inmates to read to their children on tape and send those recordings to them. Earlier, she’d participated in prison ministry through Bethesda Lutheran Church in Morrison. She also keeps track of approximately 34 men and women from 10 surrounding communities that make this unique ministry a priority.

“Chaplains, ministers and people from other churches come in and do Bible studies and prayer groups for the general population of the prison,” Betty says. “But the Thursday group of men is segregated from the general population because prison administrators identify them as people who might be victimized by other prisoners. Some are depressed or in anger management classes or on certain medications. The prison asked us to work with them because they knew we could handle them.”

Betty speaks of the misconceptions that some people have about inmates and their connection to faith.

“People think prisoners have no knowledge of church and hymns, or won’t sing. But they do! It’s good to see them grow in Christian faith,” she says.

Leona and Carl Nelson volunteer as a couple. Leona began with the women prisoners in 1991, and Carl helped her deliver 400 Easter baskets filled with religious brochures, candy and homemade cookies for the next five years. He officially started with the men’s program in 2001.

“The women were so thrilled to get some kind of little gift,” Carl says. “But I was concerned if the men could benefit.”

Leona said she was apprehensive in the early years. “We probably tried to overcompensate, show them we’re non-judgmental. We wanted them to [accept] us. With the women, we could bring in snacks and beverages and talk one-on-one with a prisoner while doing a craft,” she says.

The men choose their seats and pick out a blue square of material and some magic markers. Today’s craft will eventually become a quilt and be donated to Lutheran World Relief. There have been other wall hangings and impressive artwork created in this room, including a church banner with their handprints and “All God’s Children” written across the top.

Before the afternoon is over, there will be singing, word puzzles, scripture readings and good conversation.

The inmates talk comfortably with Betty, Leona, Carl and Tom Mahon, a retired schoolteacher who also volunteers on Thursday. And they talk about the program.

One man who calls himself “Elvis” has been coming since it started. “Thursday Ministry is an excellent program. I recommend people come every time. I get a lot of spiritual inspiration and love, especially when we do projects,” he says.

Another inmate, John, thinks it’s a blessing to have the volunteers visit them. “When I was young, I went to a Methodist church and could say the books of the New Testament. This reminds me of Matthew 25 — ‘When I was in prison, you visited me.’”

John enjoys their other projects as well, making cards and making plastic stained glass items. He also sings in the choir now, every Sunday.

Rick has participated for two years. “People take time to share the word of God and make it enjoyable. It’s one of the most positive programs and outlets here.”

Roberta, the corrections recreation specialist, agrees.

“Anytime we can get people in from the community, a good program has value. People like Betty get the word out [that] these inmates are people. Depending on what hat they wear, people can forget these are our brothers and sisters,” she said.

“More volunteers are always needed for the program,” Betty says. “We all receive more than we give.”

For information on volunteering, contact Betty Stralow at 815/772-2387 or Bettypfm@yahoo.com.