In the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus is put to death with a criminal hanging on either side of him.
The two criminals’ responses were very different, according to Luke (23:39-43). One of them derided Jesus, taunting him and mocking his unwillingness to come down from the cross if he were truly the Messiah. The other criminal − called Dismas (or Dysmas) in Christian tradition − answered the first, pointing out Jesus’s innocence.
After this exchange, Jesus turned to Dismas and said "today, you will be with me in Paradise."
Fittingly, ministry to and among prisoners has embraced the Dismas name. One group engaging in this important work is Prison Congregations of America, which helps to develop congregations within prison walls. Several of them have taken the St. Dismas name, including congregations in Maryland, South Dakota, and Pennsylvania.
In July, I had the chance to spend a few days at Outlaw Ranch in the Black Hills with Ed Nesselhuf, a Lutheran pastor who was instrumental in founding Prison Congregations. He spoke movingly of how prisoners are so often “the forgotten fifth” among the injunctions given by Jesus to his followers in Matthew 25:
Feed the hungry
Welcome the stranger
Clothe the naked
Care for the sick
Visit the prisoner
Inmates, in other words, are an integral a part of Jesus’ ministry. They have been right from the start, when Jesus read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in his hometown of Nazareth and chose a passage proclaiming release to the captives.
Last year, my friend Mary Mortenson took over as director of Prison Congregations after Ed Nesselhuf retired. The challenge is not only to create congregations inside the walls, but also to link them to those outside the walls to renew and make strong the body of Christ.
Dear reader, do you feel called to get involved in this profoundly Christian mission? Contact Mary at Prison Congregations to ask how you can get involved.