In 2009, the congregation I serve, Hollywood Lutheran Church, became involved in outreach to prisoners as a result of our compassion and response to one parolee who was sentenced to 3 more years for a technical violation of his parole. When he told other inmates about his church, they wrote to us, and we wrote back. We kept on responding to those who contacted us in the belief that we are ministering to Jesus by do this.
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me." -- Matthew 25:34--36
Although our church has always practiced hospitality to strangers, and given out food to the hungry in our community on a weekly basis for many years, we were not prepared for prison work. Yet the need was so great, we were driven to respond by the genuine faith and open-heartedness of the inmates who begged us to not forget them or abandon them as many of their own families and friends had done.
In less than three years, our modest outreach to one person has become a full program which serves more than 100 people who are either inmates in 16 California prisons or parolees who have returned to Los Angeles County. All of these individuals have sought us out by referral from another inmate.
We are constantly looking for resources to sustain this growing ministry, which runs "on a shoestring" or on the faith alone (sola fide) that God will provide the resources we need just in time. We send Bibles, newsletters, weekly church worship folders and other resources to the prisons. We arrange for "pen pals" outside to write frequently to one or more inmates. We send small teams to visit inmates whenever possible, and provide limited case management social services for parolees, in the hopes of reintegrating them into society.
The Stories About Inmates We Serve
It should be said that many of these inmates are gay or transgender individuals, and many have had lives distorted by drugs and alcohol. Many of these inmates are African-American or Latino. And while our criminal justice system is tragically prejudiced to incarcerate a hugely disproportionate number of "minorities" while allowing white offenders to avoid lengthy prison terms (very often simply because minorities cannot afford private attorneys and the public defenders literally push people facing trial to accept a "plea bargain," which truthfully is no bargain!).
We chose the name Mariposa Ministry to reflect a double reality. Mariposa is the Spanish word for butterfly. A butterfly is not confined behind bars. So the butterfly has become the symbol of freedom through personal transformation. The word mariposa is also a slang term in Spanish for a gay person, and we embrace this word, especially, to play a role in redeeming gay and transgender inmates from the shame that many have felt for being both a sexual minority and a criminal offender.
The particular needs of gay or transgender men in prison are important to understand, and so we have learned a great deal about prison culture and all of its serious problems from overcrowding to underlying corruption and abuse. Some of the inmates have HIV; many of them have other health issues. Very often there is no supportive family or community waiting for their release on parole, and we have seen some of the men for whom we had high hopes simply slip back into the street, gang or drug culture from which they came. Some have re-offended and are serving new sentences.
On the outside, the immediate need of new parolees is shelter or transitional housing, as well as meals, clothing and personal hygiene products, identification, and assistance with looking for honest work.
What the Larger Church Can Do
In addition to material resources and pen pals we are seeking, we also hope to build relationships with other congregations willing to involve themselves in outreach to inmates and parolees. In the Los Angeles area, we have already identified more than a half dozen Lutheran churches which are involved in some way with jails or prisons. Each congregation has a somewhat different model for its work.
In early 2012, at the urging of the Southwest California Synod Justice Team, Bishop Dean Nelson began to involve himself in this prison outreach effort, and has convened a Synod Prison Outreach Network to coordinate all our efforts.We continue to build relationships with other organizations working inside or outside the prison system, whether on behalf of inmates and parolees or in advocacy and reform efforts.
Hollywood Lutheran Church continues to grow through its commitment to minister to the marginalized in prisons, jails and on parole. If you are interested in involving yourself in or supporting this ministry, feel free to contact us.
You may also download more information about our work on our website, www.mariposa.hollywoodlutheran.org.
Download "Judgment is Coming!" a 5-minute speech on our prison work delivered at the Southwest California Synod ELCA Assembly in Glendale, California on June 1, 2012.