'I was in prison, and you visited me'
Picture a typical church hall, prepped for a fellowship meal and program. Rows of folding tables and simple chairs. A podium. Plastic dishware. On one table, a cross and Communion elements formed a focal point.
Men began arriving, and the distinctiveness of this Christian gathering was made plain by the clothes they wore. Their shirts were stamped with the word "INMATE."
This church service took place inside Lexington Correctional Center.
United Methodists regularly minister to those behind prison walls across the state. Crucial in that work is the Oklahoma Conference’s Criminal Justice & Mercy Ministries (CJAMM), directed by Stan Basler.
CJAMM had a major role in the Lexington event.
The prison warden’s opening remarks that day conveyed the respect on both sides of the bars for this agency and for Rev. Dr. Basler. Also a United Methodist, Eric Franklin has been a warden at five state correctional facilities.
Lexington’s senior chaplain, Larry Adams, described the agape meal as historic because three distinct religious bodies—Lutheran, Episcopalian, and United Methodist—united to offer it inside the prison.
"This meal celebrates that we are one in God," Basler said. "It is truly a joy to be with you today."
Other UM participants were other CJAMM clergy and volunteers, as well as students from Saint Paul School of Theology, a UM seminary. The 2010 event was part of a prison ministry immersion course for the students.
Preaching at Lexington, Basler talked about the Jews enduring exile, as described by Isaiah in the Old Testament.
"You can do something I can’t do," he addressed those incarcerated. "You can touch lives every day in this place.
"You can probably understand very well the experience of being in exile. There’s somebody who hasn’t heard a kind word all day—and doesn’t expect it. But when you say one, you begin something good that can be passed along to somebody else."
When I was in prison, you visited me." That Scripture echoed throughout interviews with several inmates that day at Lexington. They told stories of Christian volunteers who inspired them to seek God. They stressed the security measures for visitors. They invited more Christians to visit.
"We can change," the inmates at Lexington wanted free Christians to know.
"When we come to know the Lord Jesus Christ, we’re not the same people we were before."
"There are a lot of men and women behind these walls that have changed."
CJAMM is a multi-faceted program powered by United Methodist connectionalism. Among its work outside prisons, CJAMM also offers summer camps for children of incarcerated parents, advocates for justice at the Capitol, assists people re-entering community life, and operates Redemption Churches and Exodus Houses.