The fourth grader had one question when he arrived at Grace Church, Nutley: “Do you really have a football player here?”
“Yes. Do you want to meet him?”
Minutes later, Rahmeen was high-fiving former Giants wide receiver Stephen Baker (AKA The Touchdown Maker).
Baker visited Grace Church on Aug. 25 to interact with children at the Diocese of Newark Prison Ministry’s annual back-to-school party. Baker talked to the children about his own journey from growing up in South Los Angeles, home of the rival Bloods and the Crips gangs, to competing on a Super Bowl championship team in 1990. He spoke of the importance of hard work and education and encouraged the children to follow their dreams and plan ahead.
Afterward, the children ate lunch, enjoyed face painting and outdoor games, and received backpacks filled with school supplies donated by congregations and individuals throughout the diocese.
Prison Ministry’s programs for children began 30 years ago, when volunteers began bringing youngsters for contact visits with parents incarcerated at the Essex County Correctional Facility in Newark. The diocese provides transportation for the children, who eat dinner, play board games and visit with their parents for two hours.
Such visits are important, supporting family relationships that benefit both children and parents. Without this program, if children did visit their incarcerated parents, they would only see them through a pane of glass.
In February, Prison Ministry expanded its support for families by launching an arts and science enrichment program for the children. Hosted by House of Prayer in Newark, the program provides transportation, lunch, and two one-hour arts or science workshops one Saturday each month during the school year. The goal is to expose children to different arts and sciences, allow them to express themselves through the arts, provide them positive mentoring and role models, and allow them to develop friendships and social skills and learn to work cooperatively.
Led by professional artists and teachers, the workshops have ranged from African drumming to drama, poetry to printmaking. For Earth Day, the children created sculptures from found objects. One Saturday, middle school robotics team mentor Julie Crawford, a member of Church of the Messiah, Chester, and members of the Mount Olive High School robotics team demonstrated the Mount Olive team’s Frisbee-throwing competition robot, helped the children build and program Lego robots, and made “slime” with the children.
Prison Ministry extended the Saturday program to July, when it brought the children and their families for a picnic, swimming and paddle boating at Lewis Morris Park in Morris Township.
Prison Ministry also holds annual Christmas parties for the children, both with their parents at the jail and with their families in a gathering at St. James in Upper Montclair. Congregations throughout the diocese provide gifts for the children each year.
Members of the diocese support Prison Ministry’s children’s programs in other ways. At each Saturday program and the July picnic, various churches and the Union of Black Episcopalians have volunteered to provide lunch and snacks for the children. The Alleluia Fund and the Butts Fund provided initial funding for the Saturday program, and ACTS/VIM provided funding this year for transportation (Prison Ministry’s largest expense) for both the Saturday and jail-visit programs.
Several congregations and individuals also have provided funds and volunteered their time to support the Saturday program. Prison Ministry also receives donations to send children to summer camp and to provide them with “camper bags.” In a related program, St. Stephen’s in Millburn offers a free, one-week drumming and dance camp for the children each August.
Those interested in supporting or volunteering with the Saturday program can contact the Rev. Sharon Hausman at email@example.com. Those interested in supporting other children’s programs, or in other aspects of prison ministry, can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman coordinates Prison Ministry’s Saturday enrichment program and volunteers at Northern State and Montainview prisons. She is priest associate at Christ Church in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge.