As the holidays approach, it’s customary to count one’s blessings. Anticipation of spending time with…
I never dreamed that at age fifty-seven I would be reinventing myself. A severe bout of anxiety and depression caused me to retire early and leave my career as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations. After retiring, I didn’t see much of a future for myself. My two children were adults and had ventured out on their own. My husband was very busy with his career. I didn’t think I had anything more to accomplish or to contribute to society. I was wrong. Read more…
First, I rediscovered my love for drawing and painting. I took some classes at my local community college and found them exciting. Then, I started thinking about how I’d always been an active churchgoer and volunteer. Since college, I’d been drawn to ministry. I decided to go back to school at the Ecumenical Institute at St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore. I studied the bible (both Old and New Testaments), theology, church history and ethics with men and women from many different Christian denominations. I earned a master’s degree in Church Ministry.
For the master’s program, I was required to develop and carry out a hands-on final project in a type of ministry that attracted me. I picked prison ministry because when I worked for a residential program serving homeless women, I interacted with quite a few residents who had previously been incarcerated. These returning citizens impressed me with their courage, resolve and perseverance. They wanted their lives to change and only needed the right kind of encouragement to achieve stability, learn skills, get a job, and improve their relationships. I also noticed that the successful ones seemed to have developed an empowering relationship with God. I concluded that many people in prison had great potential and I decided to do what I could to serve them.
I envisioned my project as a way to combine my enjoyment of art with my call to ministry. By happy coincidence, a pre-release, minimum security institution for men in Jessup, Maryland was searching for a volunteer to come inside and teach art classes. I answered the call. For eight weeks, I taught an art class every Friday morning, hoping to share my knowledge of art while inspiring conversations about spirituality. Instead, I found myself listening to men talk about many different issues in their lives, for instance their fatherhood, relationships with women or dreams for jobs they hoped to get after release.
It was not uncommon for someone in the group to ask me why I came to volunteer, so I told them that I felt called by my faith in Jesus. Sometimes that prompted a response or another question and sometimes it did not. A few of the men in my class were Muslim and we had discussions about their beliefs and practices. I found it fascinating. I kept a journal that I wrote in after every class.
All too quickly my project ended, but I didn’t want to stop going inside. Although I had spent eight weeks teaching, I also spent eight weeks learning! Plus, the men were so grateful to have the opportunity for a quiet time and space to do art and greatly appreciated the art materials that I brought.
Sure, there were downsides. Some who came to class were not really interested in art at all but needed an excuse to get out of their building for a little while. These men would come in and then walk out without explanation. Students would attend for a while and then stop – some because they’d been released and others because of infractions that resulted in transfer to another facility. Some men quit, thinking that they weren’t talented enough for the class because they kept comparing their work to the work of other students who had spent years drawing and improving their skills. Coming up with lesson plans to challenge the more experienced artists and at the same time encourage those who had not drawn or painted in a long time was difficult. I went into the project hoping to have fifteen to twenty men in my class, but I ended up with an average of eight.
I decided that the positives far outweighed the negatives. I made a commitment to continue this ministry. I have been going inside the prison for two years now with a significant break for COVID. I believe what’s most important is that I show up for two hours every week and express an interest in knowing these men. It also matters that they have the chance to work beside each other and share their thoughts and opinions. We’ve started to engage in collaborative efforts. Currently, we’re planning to paint a mural on one of the walls in the facility – something I’ve never done before. An inmate who is a graffiti artist is leading the way.
Would I have envisioned myself doing this ministry ten years ago? No, I wouldn’t. It’s all been a wonderful surprise. This is one of the best phases of my life. I know what I want to do and I’m doing it. I still have energy and I’ve got a lot more confidence. I’m so glad to be where I am.