By Jessica Brodie
This Advent, United Methodist prison chaplains are embarking on a new faith journey with inmates designed to wrap pastors and churches in prayer.
The Rev. Traci Bennett, clinical chaplain supervisor at Tyger River Correctional Institution, and the Rev. Edward McKnight, senior chaplain at Lee Correctional Institution, are two of several prison ministry advocates across South Carolina taking part in Give the Gift of Prayer, a Christmas-themed prayer vigil. With the vigil, Christian prisoners will be praying daily from the beginning of Advent through Epiphany for the pastors and churches of the South Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church.
“These inmates are serving as prayer missionaries,” said Bennett, a deacon in the South Carolina Conference who has served since February at the level-two medium-security prison in Enoree. “What we’re doing is having the inmates send cards to pastors and their churches to let them know they’re praying for them during Advent, and hopefully it will make a connection between the inmates and these churches.”
McKnight said he is especially eager for the program to start at the prison he serves, Lee Correctional in Bishopville. A maximum-security level-three prison, Lee was the site of a major riot in April that left seven inmates dead.
“This is really the place where it’s needed,” McKnight said. “We need prayer, and we need to focus on prayer and praying.”
The program was initiated by Myrtle Beach Wesleyan College and Pilgrim Theological Seminary. The Rev. Keith Smith, dean of the chapel and a former prisoner himself, said while the school reaches out to anyone seeking higher-level Christian education, its leadership has a particular call to helping those incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities throughout the United States, citing Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself.”
‘Human beings loved by God’
McKnight said one of the reasons he is enthused about the prayer project is because he hopes it will open people’s eyes to the fact that prisoners are people, too—just like those on the outside.
“A lot of times people want to categorize sin, but I’m a firm believer we’re all sinners and we all fall short of the glory of God,” McKnight said.
Calling himself a prison “ambassador,” McKnight feels convicted to help people understand prisoners are human beings, and they are loved by God just as non-prisoners are.
“We should look at people as people regardless of them being behind bars,” he said. “The way I see things, we could be in the same predicament if wasn’t for the grace of God.”
Bennett said much the same.
“So many people have misconceptions about what prison is like because of what they see on television, but there are a lot of good people here who happened to make a bad decision at one point in time,” Bennett said. “Many are working to live day-by-day and live out their faith in here, no different than we do on the outside.”
The stories of grace and transformation she’s experienced through prison ministry have changed her heart and illuminated the saving power of Jesus.
“A large majority had no idea who Christ was before they came to prison,” Bennett said, but between Kairos, chapel services and the number of outside groups that come in and do revivals, she’s watched people come to faith and turn their lives around.
“I have one guy here and God has called him to be a preacher,” she said. “He’s in here 30 years, yet he’s one of the best preachers I’ve heard. God got a hold of him here. He’s even said, ‘If I had not gone to prison I would not know who God is.’”
A 24-7 ministry opportunity
Smith said those incarcerated have a special ability to work directly in their community—with other prisoners—24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The challenge, he said, is, “How do we equip these believers who are in prison to be more effective?”
He hopes the prayer vigil program will be one key way to help.
Dr. Andrea King, a South Carolina native now with the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the UMC, chairs the Board of Governors for the college and seminary.
King said Christians have an obligation to reach people in prison for the Lord. Besides gangs, she noted the only major group she knows of that capitalizes on reaching people in prison are the Muslims.
“When they go in they may be one way, and when they come out, they may be Muslim. They dedicate the time and effort to pour into those people,” King said. “The Muslim groups are very active, the gangs are very active, but where are the Christians in all this? That’s why I think this is very important. With United Methodism being a connectional ministry, we need to make a concerted effort to connect these folk who are in prison.”
McKnight said he thinks the prayer vigil will help both those prisoners doing the praying and those pastors and churches being prayed for.
He said even though it is a prison, “There’s good here.”
“Lee Correctional has been known to be a place of violence, a war zone, but we don’t want them to think that. We want to take that mindset away,” McKnight said. “It’s not a war zone. It’s just a place where guys are incarcerated.”