Otter Creek Prison Ministry

Author: Preston Shipp

     Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes, “If we are not marginalized ourselves in some way, we normally need to associate with some marginalized group to have an enlightened Gospel perspective and to be converted to compassion.” The United States has an immense population of marginalized people locked away in its prisons. It is the largest prison population in the history of the world, approximately 2.3 million people. As a result of America’s war on drugs, which has been waged over the past four decades and disproportionately against poor people of color, many of these people are serving long sentences for nonviolent crimes. The collateral damage, both emotional and financial, of such mass incarceration to children, spouses, and entire communities cannot be calculated.

     In the 25th chapter of Matthew’s gospel account, Jesus provides a clear mandate to his followers to care for “the least of these,” which includes people who are imprisoned. He goes so far as to identify himself with prisoners, stating that when we visit people who are imprisoned, we are visiting him. For decades, a small handful of people from Otter Creek have been journeying to prisons in middle Tennessee to pray, read scripture, sing songs, and share the Eucharist with people who have been convicted of crimes. Consistent with Jesus’ subversion of conventional wisdom about ministry, we are mindful that we go to meet the Lord, not to introduce him. Therefore, we go to prisons expecting not so much to preach, but to listen; not so much to teach, but to learn; not so much to transform, but to be transformed. What we find is that often we learn more about the nature of God and the gospel of love, joy, peace, justice, and reconciliation from people in prison than from preachers and teachers in church buildings and religious schools. Again, Richard Rohr has this to say: “Jesus did not call us to the poor and to the pain only to be helpful; he called us to be in solidarity with the real and for our own transformation. It is often only after the fact we realize that they helped us in ways we never knew we needed. This is sometimes called ‘reverse mission.’ The ones we think we are ‘saving’ end up saving us, and in the process, redefine the very meaning of salvation!” Our salvation, we who work in the Otter Creek prison ministry have come to understand, is bound up with that of people behind bars. We have to be willing to leave our comfortable spaces and see what God is doing elsewhere, in places and among people that may intimidate us.

     Every Sunday morning, a representative of Otter Creek drives to the Riverbend Prison in Nashville to serve communion to people who, though despised and excluded from free society, are welcome, even guests of honor, at the Lord’s table. And on the fourth Sunday night of every month, two or three people who are either Otter Creek members or friends journey to the Turney Center Prison outside Centerville to participate in worship services with the men who reside there. We have witnessed with our own eyes the power of God at work in these dark, death-dealing places, as men have been released and reunited with their families, as people have rediscovered their faith, and in one instance, on an Easter Sunday, as a former inmate who served twenty-six years for murder was reconciled to a gang member who had attacked him twenty years earlier while they were both prisoners. Resurrection broke through in the form of an apology, the extending of forgiveness, and the restoration of peace. But to bear witness to God’s work in this way, we had to venture outside the walls of our church building to be with people who are different from us, people who are at best overlooked and pushed to the side, at worst vilified and demonized as less-than- human, and discover that we are neighbors. 

     In the words of Henri Nouwen, “We become neighbours when we are willing to cross the road for one another. There is so much separation and segregation: between black people and white people, between gay people and straight people, between young people and old people, between sick people and healthy people, between prisoners and free people, between Jews and Gentiles, Muslims and Christians, Protestants and Catholics, Greek Catholics and Latin Catholics . . . To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people . . . Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another’s eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.” This is the brilliance of Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 25 to come meet him in “the least of these.” The gospel is hidden, like a treasure in a field, in prisons. 

     This is the way of God’s peaceable kingdom of reconciliation. Indeed, this is the kingdom come – to be reconciled to and experience solidarity with the other, the one who is despised and condemned and locked away. The church, the true church, consists of transformed people transforming the world, not settling for the narrative of offense and retribution, not willing for any to perish under the unfair weight of labels or be sacrificed to the spirit of institutionalized vengeance that hovers over our criminal justice system. Instead, we recognize our common humanity and dignity as bearers of the divine image. May the church make known to the principalities and powers the manifold wisdom of God.

About the Author: 
For several years, Preston Shipp served as an appellate prosecutor in the Tennessee Attorney General’s office. While serving as a religious volunteer and teaching college classes in Tennessee prisons, he became good friends with many people who were incarcerated, one of whom he had actually prosecuted. These relationships caused Preston to wake up to the many injustices that are present in the American system of mass incarceration. Preston felt increasing conflict between his faith in Jesus, who was executed as a criminal, and his role as a prosecutor, which required him to argue for the punishment of people he did not know. Unable to serve two masters, Preston left his career as a prosecutor in 2008. Since then, he has taught in universities and churches, lectured at conferences, and written about the urgent needs for criminal justice reform, a shift in how we regard imprisoned people, and a new vision of justice that seeks healing, transformation, and reconciliation, not merely the infliction of suffering. Preston’s conversion from prosecutor to criminal justice reform advocate has left him convinced that his salvation is bound up with that of his friends behind bars. Preston lives in Nashville with his wife Sherisse and their three children, Lila Joy, Ruby Faith, and Levi.