By Jessica Brodie
SENECA—One Upstate church is hoping to heed Jesus’s call to visit people in prison through weekly, intentional and specific prayer during the season of Lent.
Through a project called “Visit Prison with Your Prayers,” St. Mark United Methodist Church, Seneca, plans to pray each week for a number of prisoners living in South Carolina correctional facilities.
Many of these same prisoners spent the month of December in prayer for United Methodist churches and pastors across South Carolina, and inspired and humbled by their spirit of Christian love, St. Mark members hope to reciprocate with prayers of their own.
“Jesus said to visit those who are in prison, and this is a way we can help do that,” said the Rev. Todd Davis, St. Mark pastor. “Lent can sometimes be a dark place depending on how you focus on it, and I feel that the Lord walked a lonely journey knowing his destination was the cross. For us to consider as part of our Lenten journey people who are probably lonely every day and need hope in their lives, it’s a way to be selfless like our Lord.”
The prison prayer projects—both Advent and Lent—are an extension ministry of Myrtle Beach Wesleyan College and Pilgrim Theological Seminary, which has a mission to help people seeking a college education in Christian perspective, particularly those incarcerated in federal and state correctional facilities throughout the United States.
During Advent, South Carolina prison chaplains helped prisoners pray for pastors and churches through “Give the Gift of Prayer this Christmas,” a Christmas-themed prayer vigil. With the vigil, Christian prisoners prayed daily from the beginning of Advent through Epiphany. The Rev. Traci Bennett, clinical chaplain supervisor at Tyger River Correctional Institution, and the Rev. Edward McKnight, senior chaplain at Lee Correctional Institution, were two of several prison ministry advocates across South Carolina who participated.
The Rev. Keith Smith, dean of the chapel at Myrtle Beach Wesleyan College and Pilgrim Theological Seminary and a former prisoner himself, said he hopes St. Mark’s enthusiasm for the Lenten Visit Prison with Your Prayers project will inspire many of UMCs to follow suit.
“The model of believers in prison and believers outside of prison is one from the earliest days in Christianity,” Smith said. “You have all these biblical stories of folks who were in prison—St. Paul, Peter and so many others. Why do all these people keep showing up in the Scriptures? Perhaps to remind us that even though human beings are capable of doing some terrible things, there is a compassionate God who still loves us and offers grace and forgiveness to all who will believe in Christ.
“Remember that Jesus was himself judged to be a criminal and became the victim of capital punishment. These models are in front of us to remind us of the redemptive possibilities of every person, regardless of the gravity of our sin.”
Prisons are not places to simply house people, Smith said. They are communities, and the church is already present there.
“Despite what many might believe, there are dedicated Christians living inside prison communities. Supporting incarcerated believers with our prayers and praying for the believers-yet-to-be is something that every United Methodist congregation can do,” Smith said.
Davis said he and his congregation were touched by the love these Christian prisoners showed to them. Before they heard about the program, their church was already active in Kairos Prison Ministry, and with the Visit Prison with Your Prayers project, Davis hopes to steer the congregation to a next step in their love for the prisoners: “adopting” a correctional facility.
“These people are in prison, some of them for life, and I can’t imagine being in their shoes and perhaps the lack of hope they have. They’re never going to be on the outside again,” Davis said. “For them to be selfless and willing to pray for pastors in our conference I think is incredible. They’re stepping outside their self when they have all day long to think about self. The guy who prayed for me sent me a postcard that said ‘I’ll be praying for you every day,’ and he said, “I hope you’ll be praying for me, too.’
“I wrote him back and said, ‘You can bet we’ll be praying for you.’”
Davis hopes their zeal for prisoner prayer will encourage his fellow pastors and churches across South Carolina to do the same.
Churches interested in participating in Visit Prison with Your Prayers can email Pilgrim Seminary at firstname.lastname@example.org.