“…I was in prison and you visited me…” Matthew 25:36
Last night, I was privileged to lead worship with Deacon Gay Romack and two lay volunteers from St. Peter’s (Litchfield Park) at Perryville Women’s Prison. It was my first time inside a prison, and while I was eager to meet the women, and see what worship felt like behind the fence, I was also a little worried — what use is a bishop, when I am not a consistent presence or chaplain able to build long lasting relationships?
I need not have worried.
Twice as many women as usual came to worship, intrigued by the promise of a new lady-bishop. One revelation of our time together was how open the women were about their prayers, hopes, and fears. We got to be women together — talking about children, divorce, stress, anxiety, Jesus, and faith. We discussed the Gospel reading about the woman bent over for 18 years until Jesus liberates her on the Sabbath. Jesus wants us to be free of all the burdens that hold us down — and he doesn’t want us to have to wait another single day just to do it on the “right” day.
It was good church.
In a sense, Perryville feels like our 65th congregation in the diocese. Deacon Gay and the volunteers do five services per week — one in each of the yards — and together, about 140 women worship with them each week. They listen to scripture, sing along with a CD of Christian music, have a very interactive sermon, offer their own prayer intentions, and receive the Eucharist. They even participated in my election as your bishop — Deacon Gay distributed the materials on the three candidates to the women, they discussed the options, and voted for their favorite. At Diocesan Convention, Gay voted for the candidate they chose (and their choice won!).
In the United States, 0.7% of the population is incarcerated. Our Average Sunday Attendance collectively as a diocese is about 7500 people. If we included the weekly attendance of the women of Perryville in that count (which we do not currently do) they are about 1.9% of our worshippers.