St. Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry
A Labor of Love of Saint Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC
The first Saint Dismas Orthodox Prison Ministry Workshop was a beautiful event. I asked God for help and He gave it to me just as He promised (John 14:13-14)! When I doubted the event would happen, He sent encouragement. When I was overwhelmed, He sent two dozen volunteers from our small church, including someone with event-planning experience! Speakers came from near and far—as far away as Colorado and Minnesota and even one who took part by video from California! There were several enthusiastic participants looking for inspiration and guidance to begin their own local ministries.
As you can see by the name, the event was not only a workshop, it was also a retreat. We had a family-friendly Meet and Greet on Thursday with games for the children and a talent show on Friday evening. Eva and Lydia sang and played the guitar and violin. Herman performed his original ballads, accompanying himself on the guitar. Jonathan sang a couple booming show toons from the musical Oklahoma. The highlight was the rap song, “Who AM I?” by our friend Fernando. The lyrics were great and the rhythm self-evident. We tried to convince someone more ethnically and age appropriate to do the honors, but the task fell to a skinny-white Dr. of Theology, Herman, and the gray-haired Grand-Mama-Jo, much to the delight of all. Fr. Turbo almost fell off his chair! Hali, our friend Christóphorus’ daughter, gave a delightful presentation and played a few of her original songs. What talent!
Shown above are (left to right) are Silouan, Saul, Herman, Monica, Fr. Stephen Powley (OCPM), Fr. Turbo and our old friend, Derrick. Six churches in 4 states are represented in this one picture! In all there were 10 or 11 Orthodox communities represented!
Thanks to the generosity of so many, including the Kory Warr of Praxis Development, our brother Shane Birdsbill, the sacrifice and donations of our speakers, community members as well as the attendance of paying participants, the event broke even (didn’t go into debt), which I’m told, is a miracle in itself. At least 6 new ministries were inspired. The workshop overflowed, from beginning to end, with God’s grace!
We opened the event with prayer followed by the reading of the three letters from Elijah, and then Michael’s letter, one of three I received announcing that Elijah had passed away. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place. I looked up and saw my 10-year-old granddaughter, Eva, sitting straight-backed, frozen with her pen in hand. Tears streamed down her face as she heard the news for the first time. Michael’s letter closed with “I’m told that we”, you all and this ministry, “were his only family”. This final point drove home the seriousness of the journey some people were about to embark on; prison ministry is a life-long commitment with eternal rewards. Immediately afterwards, Eva ran up to me and gave me a big hug and told me not to worry, that she will carry on the work of St. Dismas OPM even when I’m gone. The carrying-on aspect is reason to make this a family as well as a community effort.
The workshop was dedicated to Elijah, our inside guy in the sky, as the representative of all of you. The dedication was recommended by Mayberry in his letter, the first one to arrive with the news or Elijah’s repose. Elijah had a desire to be ever closer to God and he found such joy in his relationship with Christ and His Church, asking to be officially made part of the Church through baptism. Attested to by Michael, Anthony, Paul and the letters he wrote to us, Elijah’s testimony was considered sufficient by the clergy and attendees of the workshop to make him Orthodox by volition, by his desire to be. God knows the heart! At the first break of the day, the clergy chanted a beautiful Hymn for Elijah’s repose and eternal memory.
The original theme of the workshop was to find clergy to go and baptize and minister to Elijah and others. Unbelievably there are 7 Orthodox churches less than 45 miles from Harnett CI in Lillington, NC that could of, would of, should of been involved with the group there if they had only known! However, with Elijah’s sudden passing the workshop took a new and unplanned turn. Zossima, who learned about Orthodox Christianity and studied Theology while doing time, brought up the point that it is important to remember that not everyone we befriend will embrace Orthodoxy (which is ok). Adding that, even those that do may never have the opportunity to be baptized.
In Elijah’s case he never met a priest or even spoke to one on the phone. He read someone else’s GNL long before writing to Mama-Jo the first time. He never had his own Orthodox Study Bible but copied the prayers out of Michael’s. Michael said, “it made him so happy” and that he “found his home in Orthodoxy.” Although he undoubtably was already in a relationship with God long before his first contact with St. Dismas OPM, that relationship deepened through this ministry; he became part of solid faith and a family. That is what this ministry is about! Orthodox Prison Ministry starts now, today, and not when this or that future event happens, like becoming a believer, or baptism or release from prison. It starts with this conversation we are having here in this Newsletter!
It is a worthy goal to bring more priests into the prisons, but when this does not happen, it shouldn’t lessen the impact of Orthodox Prison Ministry. Our focus should be on the relationship—our relationship with each other as individuals; those of us on the outside visiting Christ in prison (aka you!) and vice versa—you coming to see Christ in us! In the world we are often lumped into categories and looked at and judged in our groups. In Christ we are individual people and we see each other and get to know each other as such. Remember, Christ loves you!! He sees you and even counts the hairs on your head (Luke 12:7).
What is the goal of Christian faith? Why do we fast during Lent?
Have you heard that there is a God-shaped hole in every person’s heart, a void that only He can fill? Well, it’s true! We naturally long for God, for a sense of belonging. The pain of addiction, of a broken heart, of rejection (wounded pride) and even hunger, all mimic our longing for God. People try to fill this void with all sorts of things; drugs, food, sex, possessions, knowledge, exercise, power over others, etc., but nothing works. At best, these substitutes only numb and harden our hearts. But God can make a stony heart soft and supple again (Deuteronomy 30:6) (Psalms 51)!
Christ said He wants us to be one with Him in the same way that the Triune God is one. God is one in His three parts—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit = One God. This union is the purpose and goal of our Faith; to become one with Christ, to be filled with His love, to know God the Father through the Son, to obtain unity with God and with each other as the Body of Christ. Read His words in John 17:21-26.
The flesh (our body) fights against our spirit (Galatians 5:17, Galatians 6:8, Matthew 26:41). For example, we can have the intention to spend time in prayer or do a kindness for someone, but our stomach demands to be filled, or our eyes distract us with pictures that take our mind and body to dark places. The distractions of video games, music, and TV shows are designed to separate us from God. Fasting is a way to discipline ourselves so that we are not ruled by emotions or bodily cravings; it helps us build up resistance to temptations.
Being a disciple, literally means being under discipline. Christ Himself went into the wilderness and fasted for 40 days in preparation for His 3-year Mission. When faced with temptation, for example, when He was hungry the devil offered to turn stones into bread, Christ quoted the Scriptures. Read about it in Matthew 4: 1-11! It is difficult to say no to temptations, and it takes practice! The purpose of fasting during Lent is to strengthen our relationship with God by weakening the power that our flesh has over us, thereby enabling us to resist the temptations that obstruct our spiritual growth & healing.
We fast from some foods, but not all food. We fast from animal products including meat, fish and poultry, eggs and dairy, as well as wine and other strong drink. We also fast from distractions and entertainment and spend our time reading spiritually nourishing material, listening to hymns and reading scripture. Christian couples also fast from marital relations and everyone tries to be more respectful and kinder (hard to do with a growling stomach!). The things we fast from are things that enflame the passions; things that make us more inclined to pride, anger, lust, envy, etc. Lent is also a time to give additional alms to the poor. What we save from fasting, we are encouraged to give to the less fortunate and the Church. It is a good time to memorize Bible verses too!
Fasting is voluntary and the degree to which one fasts is based on circumstances. Diabetics for example, can’t fast if it will harm their health. Making a good effort to fast during Lent makes us stronger all year long and brings us closer to our goal of unity with God. Lent is a spiritual growth spurt!
Look at February 17th on your Orthodox calendar (I sent it last time). As you can see, it is the feast of Publican and the Pharisee. Read about the attitudes of these two men as they stood before God in the Temple in Luke 18:10-14 (one of the readings listed on the calendar that day). Notice that there is no Wednesday or Friday fast the following week. This fast-free week is prescribed by the Church to correct any one who has fallen into foolish pride, like the Pharisee, and thinks that that fasting, tithing or some other good work is going to save us. No! What we need to be saved is the humility of the tax collector to see our unworthiness and a desire for a loving relationship with God (1 Corinthians 13:3). God’s grace, His love for us, is what saves us (Ephesians 2:1-10).
The Church Calendar as part of your daily routine
The calendar pages we send to you are a tool that Orthodox Christians use to learn and grow closer to God and His Church. On every day of the year there are verses listed that the Orthodox all over the globe read together, making us of one heart and mind! The verses during Lent include all the Old Testament Prophesies and prepare us for the most holy of days: The Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, Pascha! The abbreviations for the book of the Bible is followed by the chapter number, a colon and then the verse numbers. Our calendars are in English and Russian, which might make it a bit confusing at first, but you can figure it out pretty easily.
Learning about the Saints—those who have kept the faith and passed it down to us—is another way we preserve and increase our faith. For example, sports fans know the history of their team and recognize individual heroes and their contribution to the game. The champions are immortalized; their names, and stories become one with the history of the game. Although we may play the same sport, the majority of us can only dream of ever being one of the greats. The capital “s” Saints are the champions and heroes of the Christian Faith. We look to them for inspiration. Every day, one (or more) of the many saints commemorated on that day are listed on the calendar. At home or in Church, Orthodox Christians look up the story of the Saint’s life and read the hymns that record their legacy. Icons, with their picture and “stats” might even be compared to baseball cards, but are considered holy. We ask the Saints to pray for us and to help us in our daily struggles. After all, they are alive in Christ!
The Church Calendar also shows us when the important feast days are, which days are set aside for fasting and the degree of fasting prescribed. There are white, pink, gray and black days. White is fast free. Unfortunately, when we send you the calendar pages, they are usually in black and white, so you’ll have to imagine the pink (most Wednesday and Fridays and typical fasting periods. Gray is rare). Pink indicates normal fasting- no meat or dairy products, etc. Some pink days have a cluster of grapes, which means wine and oil are allowed and others have a fish, meaning fish is allowed in addition to wine and oil, making it a feasting fast day (see April 21st Palm Sunday). Gray days indicate a partial fast. For example, March 4-10th we are fasting from Meat but not dairy products or eggs. Black days are strict fasts where we fast all day from all food. In April, there is a strict fast on the day Christ was crucified. Pascha is a feast day—indicated by the BIG RED letters on a white background.
Join us in this year’s Lenten Fast by reading the indicated verses, asking the Saints for their prayers and fasting the best you can.
The Good News Letter (GNL) is a labor of love of Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church in Fletcher, NC. We send these letters to 50+ people in prisons across NC and the USA free of charge, raising funds for postage and printing. We have baptized 7 souls through this prison ministry! Contact us at [email protected] or visit our parish website at https://www.stnicholasoc.org/
Donations of books, time, and financial support are always welcome. Want to help or start a prison ministry at your parish? Write us at: St. Dismas Prison Ministry PO Box 19616 Asheville, NC 28815 Thank you for your prayers for “those in prison”, our brothers and sister in Christ. Unless otherwise indicated the GNL is written by MJ Dukas.