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Prison Ministry gets creative during COVID pandemic

Prison Ministry gets creative during COVID pandemic. SHARON SHERIDAN PHOTO
The Rev. Sharon Sheridan Hausman

Online arts workshops. Home delivery of pumpkins and backpacks. Recorded worship.

Like other ministries across the diocese, Prison Ministry spent most of 2020 adapting to the changing circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic to continue serving prisoners and their families.

The year began with an expansion of the ministry’s decades-old program of bringing children for contact visits with parents jailed 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.

The children also attended a monthly arts and science enrichment program hosted by House of Prayer in Newark. The program provides transportation, lunch and workshops led by professional artists and teachers. In January, the children celebrated the Lunar New Year and painted a life-size mural of themselves with the help of diocesan artist Debra Cook that was displayed at Diocesan Convention. In February, the children participated in a drama workshop centered around Black History Month.

Prison Ministry members also worked with adults, leading Bible study, worship and other programs inside two state prisons and visiting an immigrant detainee at the ICE detention center in Elizabeth.

These in-person programs all halted with the pandemic shutdown in March. But the needs didn’t halt. In some ways, they increased, as prisoners faced added restrictions and no visits from family or volunteers, and some of their families experienced greater economic hardship as well as the challenges of their children abruptly moving to all-remote schooling.

The Rev. Nikisha Turner, who coordinates and chaperones the jail visits and enrichment program transportation, kept in touch with the families and monitored their needs. About once a month, she delivered items to cheer and support the children and their caregivers, beginning with Easter baskets.

To help address food insecurity, Prison Ministry has provided grocery cards and Thanksgiving turkey baskets to the families. Deacon Virginia Whatley of Good Shepherd, Fort Lee, secured donations of age-appropriate children’s books as well as chocolate and other treats. And when holding the ministry’s annual back-to-school party wasn’t possible, Turner delivered backpacks filled with donated school supplies and handmade child-size masks for each child. An additional 30-plus backpacks went to children through Apostles House, which houses homeless mothers and children in Newark.

Prison Ministry resumed the enrichment workshops via Zoom in July, beginning with the much-loved drumming instructor Yahaya Kamate, who teaches at the annual drumming camp run by St. Stephen’s in Millburn. (St. Stephen’s also was able to hold a modified in-person camp this summer and later to provide Thanksgiving baskets and Christmas gifts to participating families.) Subsequent workshops featured Matt Mitler of the Dzieci Theatre teaching mime, Megan Sweet of Christ Church in Bloomfield and Glen Ridge teaching improv and Episcopal musician Ana Hernandez teaching vocal music.

In October, Dani Pietrowski of Church of the Messiah, Chester, led the children in decorating pumpkins and foam visors at an online Harvest Festival. Each child received a pumpkin, visor and craft supplies. For the annual Christmas party, ordinarily hosted by St. James in Upper Montclair, the children gathered online to decorate ornaments provided by Prison Ministry, listen to a reading of “The Night Before Christmas” and receive a visit from Santa Claus and two small elves. The families later received deliveries of Christmas gifts.

Serving prisoners has proved more challenging, since COVID-19 restrictions prevent volunteers from entering any detention facilities, and technologies such as Zoom are not available for leading online Bible studies or other programs.

Through First Friends, however, Martha Reiner of Grace Church, Nutley, was able to maintain contact by phone with the immigrant detainee she had been visiting and to follow his progress after he was released.

Prison Ministry also provided a recorded Longest Night Worship – an interfaith version of a Blue Christmas service – to the Essex County and Morris County jails, two state prisons, and correctional facilities in New York and California. More than a dozen members of the diocese and the Drew University community and alumni participated in the service, which provided an opportunity for acknowledging grief and loss as well as a message of hope and healing.

Churches and individuals throughout the diocese and beyond have made these continuing ministries possible.

At least 15 churches and multiple individuals in and beyond the diocese as well as churches in the Diocese of New Jersey provided hundreds of Christmas gifts, which were distributed to the families in Prison Ministry’s ongoing programs as well as through county jails and other organizations serving children of incarcerated and recently released parents. Volunteers helped transport and sort the gifts.

Prison Ministry also distributed 60 backpacks filled with school supplies thanks to donations from many churches and individuals.

Pat Vine of St. Michael’s, Wayne, and Barbara Thompson of Iowa sewed and donated hundreds of masks that were distributed to children in Prison Ministry’s programs as well as to children of ICE detainees at the Hudson County Jail.

Individuals and churches throughout the diocese and the Newark chapter of the Union of Black Episcopalians also provided ShopRite cards and monetary donations. Prison Ministry also receives diocesan funding through Alleluia Fund and ACTS/VIM grants and the annual budget.

Moving into 2021, Prison Ministry will continue supporting the families and offering the monthly enrichment program for the children via Zoom until it is safe to resume in-person programming.

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