Editor’s note: COVID-19 has uniquely impacted communities of color and their lives and ministries. In this series, we will feature ELCA Racial Justice reflections from each of the ELCA Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries associations, focusing on racism and racial disparities amid the coronavirus.
“‘And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:39-40).
I am a pastor serving St. Dysmas of South Dakota, an ELCA congregation inside the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, S.D. The men in my congregation come from a wide variety of racial, social and economic backgrounds and are in prison for a wide range of reasons.
South Dakota is approximately 87% white and 9% native, but as of March 31, there were 1,732 white males in the South Dakota prison system and 1,032 Native Americans. I will not dig deep into the reasons for this disparity, but it certainly reflects a severe problem in our society and justice system.
One interesting thing about serving this congregation is that the worshipers come from many different religious backgrounds. A typical worship service comprises men raised as Lutherans (of all kinds), Baptists, Reformed Christians, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Messianic Jews and Orthodox Jews. There are men with no prior religious affiliation and Native Americans who participate in traditional sweat lodges. I am committed to serving all the men, regardless of their faith, and I find beauty in this diversity as we acknowledge one God, expressed and heard in many traditions.
As I listen to the men who visit with me, I hear common themes that contributed to their imprisonment. Many were raised in low-income homes, had addicted or absentee parents, and suffered abuse as children. This is especially true for the Native American men who grew up in extreme poverty on reservations.
South Dakota is approximately 87% white and 9% native, but there are 1,732 white males in the South Dakota prison system and 1,032 Native Americans.
The other thing I hear often is that they had inadequate legal representation at trial. In our current justice system, if you have enough money to hire an attorney who will focus on your case, you have a much better chance of either being acquitted or receiving a lighter sentence. If you must rely on a public defender overwhelmed by a heavy caseload, you are likely to receive a harsher sentence than others who had better representation.
These stories are hard to hear. But as a pastor, I need to make sure the men know, amid this injustice, that God loves them, no matter what.
I love serving men in prison. There are no pretenses. They know who they are and what they need. They have hung over the abyss. They have come to a point in their lives where they know something has to change and life must mean more than they have previously experienced. They are eager to hear the good news of Jesus Christ, and that good news changes them.
When they come forward to receive communion, there is an eagerness in their eyes. They know they need Christ and his unconditional love. Many of these men have never felt a real sense of peace in their lives before this.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the South Dakota Department of Corrections is allowing no visitors or volunteers inside the prison, so I am unable to make pastoral care visits or lead worship. However, every week I record a worship service on DVD and send it to the prison, which plays it on the closed-circuit TV system. The men watch the service in their cells rather than assemble as a congregation.
At St. Dysmas, all are truly welcome to worship. The good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to all people. It is a joy to be called to bring that message to this community worshiping behind bars.