Whenever newcomers attend worship at Followers of Christ, an ELCA synodically authorized worshiping community at the Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln, Neb., they are always astonished. “These people look like me. They could be my neighbors,” they say.
To which Bob Bryan, the ministry’s pastor, nods and replies, “They are.”
Followers of Christ is a worshiping community made possible in part by the gifts of ELCA members to the ELCA Nebraska Synod and ELCA churchwide ministries.
They meet every Saturday night in the penitentiary to restore the broken relationships between the inmates, God and society. Most inmates get out in four years and are eager to return to normal lives despite their previous mistakes. Followers of Christ is there to make that transition easier.
“There’s a lot of fear,” Bob says when talking about recruiting people from the outside to attend the service. On Sundays, except when leading worship at the women’s prison in York or the Omaha Correctional Center, Bob travels to local congregations in hopes that others in the community will join him on a Saturday night to “encounter Jesus in a new way, with people who truly understand grace.”
He meets many people who think that the inmates don’t deserve it, to which he will reply: “We are all equal at the foot of the cross.”
The inmates know how awkward it is for people to come to the penitentiary. Visitors must submit to background checks and then be patted down upon arrival. There are many rules to remember, including a ban on hugging and sharing of personal information.
Also, these people are giving up a Saturday evening to be with them; something the men in the Nebraska State Penitentiary don’t take lightly. For one night, the inmates feel connected to the outside world. They feel remembered. They feel human.
With that kind of support from the community, Bob hopes the prisoners leave the penitentiary and never go back. He desperately wants these men to connect to the church while in jail and to keep the connection when they get out.
Which is exactly why Followers of Christ helps with re-entry assistance through its partner ministries: the FEAST program at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Lincoln, and Bridges to Hope, a non-profit organization that provides donated furniture, clothes and hygiene products free of charge for inmates upon release.
In addition, as inmates near the end of their sentences, volunteers from Our Saviour’s FEAST program bus those granted religious passes to church on Sunday. They worship with the congregation with nothing to set them apart as prisoners. Bob says that “no one can tell the difference.”
Tobi White, pastor of Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, and Jan Riedman, director of FEAST, invite inmates’ family and friends to join them for the worship, a meal, Bible study and re-entry programming. Every Sunday, the prisoners and FEAST partners are reunited with the people who care about them most.
This kind of encouragement makes all the difference in the lives of these men as they struggle to find their place in the world upon their release.
And as Bob so succinctly sums it up: “What else is church for?”