An Audience for Both Prisoner and President
VANDALIA – Phyllis Rames recalls a 1992 meeting at Vandalia Correctional Center as a life-changing event.
As one of several persons representing various churches in the community, Rames met with the chaplain of the facility as speakers talked about getting involved in prison ministry.
“I didn’t want to go,” Rames recalled in a feeling reminiscent of John Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. “I reluctantly went and we listened to the speakers and then participated in breakout sessions. It was time to go and I just burst into tears. My heart went out to those that were in prison.”
And like Wesley’s experience, the heart-warming kindled a fire within.
Returning to the church, Rames called Jim and Joyce Staff and Iris Rademacher and plans began for a new ministry at Vandalia First UMC. Staff, who served 32 years as Regional Superintendent of Schools for Fayette, Bond and Effingham counties, was well acquainted with the prison system as he had been instrumental in getting an education program started at the prison.
Rames said that Vandalia First UMC was the first group to pass the background check and be let in.
Staff said that the success of the program has been marked by not only the faithfulness of the volunteers but by having a supportive prison chaplain and a supportive pastor. “You have to have prison personnel that not only are concerned about the security but also about the spiritual well-being of the prisoner,” he said. “And the local pastor’s support is vital.”
Roger Grimmett, who has been the church’s pastor since 2008, credits the long-standing ministry to the commitment of its volunteers. “We have really talented people that go every Tuesday afternoon to the prison,” Grimmett noted. “One of the nice things is that I have been able to go as an observer-participant in the Bible Study discussion group. And the benefits of the ministry are two-way. The inmates have a band and lead worship before the Bible Study and I see my role more as a way of showing support for those that actually do the ministry.”
Rademacher noted that Vandalia First’s Bible Study is unique because it is held weekly. “Other groups try to do a worship service or special things; we feel that our task is to lead a Bible Study and the leadership rotates each week,” she said. “And we go whether it is a holiday or the snow is a foot deep,” Staff added.
Staff said one of the greatest challenges in the Bible Study is that those attending range from having never attended church to others that are well-versed and extremely knowledgeable about the Bible. “We were talking about the Glory of the Lord recently and we had a couple of inmates that could quote chapter and verse,” he said. “It keeps those of us who lead on our toes.”
In addition to Rames, Rademacher, the Staffs and Grimmett, the ministry also has Rodes Hood, Robin Starnes, Carolyn Daniels and Joan Fackler as part of the leadership. Fackler is the wife of a retired Lutheran pastor who is serving an Episcopal church in Vandalia and is drawn to prison ministry.
Fackler noted that while the number of prisoners attending Bible Study was originally 12 to 15, that number has grown to 50. “It does make it more challenging to have discussions but each leader handles it differently.”
Grimmett noted that of the 50, there are five or six new persons each week. “What pastor wouldn’t love to have that experience?”
Hood noted that six of the eight participants have backgrounds as teachers. “A teacher is a teacher,” he said, noting that each brings different methods and different approaches to the sessions.
Staff said one of the greatest things you learn is the art of listening. “One of the things we are seeing is a larger number of folks from Chicago and Cook County being sent here,” Staff said. “As you hear them tell their story and the situation from which they came, I don’t think we could exist either. Most of the stories have alcohol or drug-related overtones. But the important thing is that we give them a place to verbalize the problem, they are able to acknowledge they did wrong and made bad choices, which enables them to begin to transform the situation into something better.”
Hood said the stories of transformation are incredible. “One fellow told the story where he ran into the guy that had crippled him for life in prison and he was able to forgive him.”
As relationships were established, the group began to celebrate birthdays and find ways to recognize the inmates, although the group acknowledged they unknowingly “broke some rules.”
Hood tells the story about an inmate who had been at Vandalia and was transferred down to Big Muddy Correctional Center near Benton.
“One of our group happened to be driving along the highway and saw a crew out cleaning up litter,” he said. “They recognized the inmates as having been in the Bible Study and stopped the car and yelled at him. After a tense moment with the guard, the Big Muddy warden called the Vandalia warden and asked if these folks held a Bible Study up there. When he confirmed it, the Big Muddy warden said, ‘You have to tell your folks they can’t do that! (stop along the highway)”
Because of the record numbers being incarcerated in Illinois prisons, the regulations are tightening again. Staff noted that they used to be able to take in baked goods and lemonade for socials. Now, they aren’t allowed to do it.
Rademacher carries eight scrapbooks that show letters, drawings, poetry and other items from the prisoners. Volunteers are only identified by first name and any communication with prisoners is filtered through the church and its mailing address.
Although the ministry has been going on for 20 years, the main core group has remained unchanged. Four others – Bill and Billie Staff; Peggy Clark and Don Adams were a part of the group at different times but widespread turnover has not been evident.
Staff said churches can become involved in prison ministry even outside the church because what happens when the inmate is released is so important.
“When a prisoner is released, if he can find work, he is on his way (toward finding a new life),” he said. “If not, he gets discouraged, he knows where the money is and more than likely, he will return to prison at some point.”
Staff said he gets questions from members of the congregation often. “I tell them I am just as comfortable sitting with 40 inmates as I am sitting in Sunday School class,” he said. “When you treat everybody as a Child of God, then both prisoner and President can sit at the same table.”