Kurt Parks enjoyed spending time outside last summer, working the garden at the Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center (FCCC) in Milwaukee as he finished out his prison sentence at the pre-release facility. He and other men at the center planted and tended to zucchini, squash, tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, greens and cabbage.
Parks, who worships with Breaking the Chains Church, an ELCA ministry inside FCCC, said he enjoyed the process and responsibility of helping the plants grow.
The garden supplies produce for meals at the facility, and last year the harvest was so bountiful it yielded more food than FCCC could use. By Parks’ estimate, they harvested 50 pounds of each vegetable.
This caught the eye of David Rebey, pastor of Breaking the Chains, as he returned to FCCC and his parishioners last July after a 16-month absence due to pandemic restrictions.
“The harvest was just falling off the plants, and I mentioned it to the guards,” Rebey remembered. “They said, ‘We’d be happy to donate it because we have more than we can use here.’ And I said, ‘I think I can find a place.’”
Ministry on the inside
Breaking the Chains officially formed in 2016, when Rebey was still in seminary, but he was active as a lay volunteer from its beginnings. After his ordination in 2020, he was called as its pastor in 2021.
At the center, Rebey leads worship on Saturday nights and a Bible study on Wednesdays. After the institution went into quarantine early in the pandemic, he started recording worship services to send to the facility on DVD and later got permission to lead worship services over Zoom.
When Rebey was able to return to FCCC, he was eager to reconnect with the parishioners of Breaking the Chains and excited about the opportunity offered by the garden’s harvest to connect the men with the wider community. He knew there were food pantries that could make good use of the garden’s abundance.
Rebey reached out to Cross Lutheran Church Food Justice Ministry in Milwaukee and to Tosa Cares, a food pantry operated by Mount Zion Lutheran Church, Wauwatosa, Wis., that is supported by Redemption Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, where Rebey serves a part-time call.
“Most of the time [the pantries] get nonperishable items,” he said. “They were ecstatic to have produce that looked like it came from a gourmet grocery store.”
“A deeper meaning”
Linda Radder, a faith community nurse who coordinates the food pantry at Cross, said the produce from FCCC provided something the ministry hadn’t been able to offer during the pandemic—greens.
“Our population is primarily African American, and greens are a staple in [their] community, historically,” she said. “That was the best part—the fact that what we were getting from the Chaney Center was something really important to the people we serve. And they were the most beautiful greens I had ever seen. If they tasted as good as they looked, they must have been amazing.”
Radder said she valued the donation most because it connected Cross to the men at FCCC, who had previously served as volunteers at the pantry and as cooks for the congregation’s senior center programs.
“At Cross, we probably have a decade at least, or even two decades, of involvement with the Chaney Center, and because of COVID-19, we weren’t able to have the men come and be with us,” Radder said. “When I got the call from [Pastor Rebey], it was really good because it felt like we still had a connection—that we still had a way the men could share with us, and we could share with others because of the Chaney Center. It just felt like it had a deeper meaning.”
Rebey thinks the donation has set a precedent and that the FCCC community garden will continue to thrive and share with ministries in the community. “You don’t expect people in prison to be giving something back and helping hungry people in the community,” he said. “But these are men who are transforming their lives, and they care about others. They don’t have much to give other people, but through their own sweat and labor, they could donate this produce.”
Parks agreed with Rebey’s assessment of the community garden: “I thought it was awesome being a part of giving instead of taking. That felt great, that I was responsible for helping feed someone [who’s] hungry.”
He also said he learned an important lesson from working the garden that he’ll remember when he’s released: “Be open to helping a neighbor. God says help others from your heart, and you, too, will be blessed.”