Caring For the Least of These

PRINCE GEORGE’S COUNTY CORRECTIONAL CENTER’S FIRST FEMALE CHAPLAIN SHARES WHY SHE FEELS CALLED TO CARE FOR THE LEAST OF THESE

Michele Reynolds is learning what it means to follow God’s calling—even when it’s difficult. She’s working toward earning her Master of Arts in Christian Care at Lancaster Bible College and working as a chaplain for Good News Jail and Prison Ministry at Prince George’s County Correctional Center in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. Seminary can be tough, working in ministry is undoubtedly tough, and working in a prison setting is even tougher. But Reynolds says, “The most challenging part about chaplaincy is assisting the senior chaplain in managing 400 volunteers, working two jobs, and going to seminary simultaneously.” An understatement, to be sure. And yet, she’s taking it all in stride.

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Impressive academics and incredible stamina aside, Reynolds says she’s always had a heart for volunteerism, which she credits to her parents. She said chaplaincy “just makes sense” to her. “I had been volunteering for almost 15 years at Prince George’s County Correctional Center when our senior chaplain fell ill, and I was temporarily placed in his position for nine months,” she explained. “I call it my ‘divine internship.’ It’s a part of my Jeremiah 29:11.” In her role as the first female chaplain at the correctional facility in Upper Marlboro, Reynolds has many responsibilities. “Primarily, I am in charge of making sure all female inmates’ spiritual and emotional needs are met,” she said. “I also train all volunteer managers and manage the volunteers themselves and provide spiritual guidance and counseling to correctional officers and staff.”

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Reynolds noted that her education at Lancaster Bible College Capital Seminary and Graduate School is making a real difference in the way she does her job. “Most times what I am learning in the class I’m already experiencing and or practicing every day,” she said. It gives me confirmation in how I’m doing in ministry, and classmates can see through me that the subjects we learn will be practiced one day in their ministry.”

Reynolds is intimately familiar with the challenging situations a chaplain might face on any given day. “Recently, a woman names Mrs. Johnson called us and said that her granddaughter Sharon was in our correctional center,” she said. “The grandmother was frantic because Sharon’s baby was nowhere to be found.” Reynolds and other staff members were able to talk with Sharon, but it became apparent that she suffered from a severe mental illness, and much of what she said was unintelligible. They never found out where the baby was. “We assume that the baby was picked up by child protective services, but we don’t know,” said Reynolds. “It’s heart-wrenching and makes emotions surface in my quiet times with the Lord. In the midst of these situations, I pray and look for the ways I can assist the inmates and their families during these difficult times. In this field, you come across a whole lot of horrible things, but you embrace the good things. Working as a chaplain teaches me to to be even more compassionate and to remember in the end, it’s all about Jesus and serving Him and His people.”

“I was called to minister to the least, the lost, and the left out,” said Reynolds. Overall, she says she’s grateful for the training she’s receiving through the seminary. “My journey to obtain my MA in Christian Care is more inspiring and meaningful since I’ve become a chaplain,” she explained. “I took a couple of breaks before, and I’m glad I did… but now it’s much more meaningful in my life and in other lives.”

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To learn more about the master’s degree programs at Lancaster Bible College visit: http://lbc.edu

 

Monthly Book Review: “Wanted” by Chris Hoke

Chris Hoke is a jail chaplain and pastor to gangs and violent offenders in the State of Washington. Through his work with the organization Tierra Nueva, he co-founded a coffee-roasting business, Underground Coffee, which employs men coming out of prison and addiction, and connects them to agricultural partners in Honduras. Hoke received his B.A. from U.C. Berkley and his M.F.A. in creative non-fiction from Seattle Pacific University. Wanted is his literary debut.

Wanted follows Hoke through his restless years in the sunny suburbs to the darker side of society in the rainy Northwest, where he finds the direct spiritual experience he’s been seeking while volunteering as a night-shift chaplain at a men’s correctional facility. The kind of genuine spirituality he did not find during what he called his “over-churched” youth. The jail becomes his portal to a mysterious world where gang members soon dub him their “pastor.”

One of the most moving parts of his story, for me, was when he spent the evening singing and playing his guitar with someone who attempted suicide in the jail’s isolation cell. Hoke writes in the introduction to the book, “With these stories of wanted men, my relationships with criminals in various states of transformation, I am really trying to capture a greater subject – a divine presence that has yet to be held very long in any official custody.”

Wanted is full of unsavory criminals, profanity, violence, death, and drugs. I have discussed the book with several pastors I know. Two of them cannot understand the need for tales laced with violence and profanity, offering me the opinion that the same could be told without all those expletives. I don’t agree. Nothing can capture the passion and the fear of living on the streets like the uncensored telling of arrests, of being slave to the needle, about misery, betrayal, hatred, bigotry and violence. To edit the commentary of these lost and angry men would be to take the raw honesty out of the story.

Hoke walked up to a defendant in a courtroom and was stopped by the public defender, who asked, “Excuse me, you are?” The young defendant said, “Um, this is my pastor.” Hoke winced at the word. At first, he thought he was being mocked. Certainly, a pastor was the leader of a church. But Hoke was told, “Naw, you’re our pastor, dawg! We’ve never had a pastor. Now we got you.” He was told this was a good thing. “When we wanna connect with God, when we’re in a bad spot late at night, where we gonna go? We call you.” Hoke came to understand himself as a shepherd to the black sheep.

Hoke writes, “Most of the crimes I hear about from the men I meet in the jail don’t alarm me. Even murders. To threaten, steal, destroy, cheat, evade, rage, attack, smother, and self-medicate are all impulses I recognize in myself. Most men who come to our Bible studies I can welcome as tragic extensions of my own hypothetical selves. And these men in rubber slippers are frankly more honest about their sins than I am about the distortion hidden within me. So to embrace these men is to see and embrace my own darkness. I’ve often considered the jail a kind of warped existential mirror.”

“I want to paint God,” Hoke tells us in the forward, describing his own struggles to know an intangible God. Hoke “paints” God’s likeness by writing with graceful intensity; his prose drenched with descriptive details and surprising metaphor (he compares trumpeter swans to migrant workers, wild salmon to gang youth), his musings nuanced and complex (he suggests that people with schizophrenia tune into God more easily than the mentally stable). There are no broad brushstrokes, only fine paint-blots a million times over. Like an impressionist painter, he uses some light, some dark, but all work together to give the reader a picture of who God is and how God uses the outcasts of society to reflect His priorities. His kingdom.

I highly recommend this book to pastors, youth workers, corrections workers, and addictions counselors.