This week we’re hearing from The Rev. Colleen Montgomery, Pastor at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church about her recent visit to Keen Mountain Correctional Center and the important ministry GraceInside provides.
On Monday, October 1st, Pastor Kelly Bayer Derrick and I visited the Keen Mountain Correctional Center in Oakwood, Virginia, on the invitation ofGraceInside. GraceInside’s mission is to provide chaplains to all of Virginia’s state prisons. The Virginia Synod is a founding member of GraceInside and continues to support their ministry. Pastor Kelly and I went to listen, to learn, to witness, and to represent our synod. We were both changed by the hours we spent inside.
We met with two staff members from GraceInside, Chaplain Paul Ritter and Rev. Lynn Litchfield. Chaplain Ritter serves as chaplain to the over 700+ men who live within the walls of Keen Mountain and was our guide for the day. Rev. Litchfield, the director of development at GraceInside, also accompanied us and provided insight into the big picture of the statewide ministry.
We were escorted into the prison and met with four inmates in the chapel on the Level 4 side of the prison. The men on this side of the facility live in cells that are furnished with two beds, two desks, one toilet, and one sink. They eat in the chow hall and have time for outside recreation each day. Each of the men who we met had his own story, but the underlying theme was the same. The opportunities to worship, grow in faith, and gather with other Christians were life-changing for them. God’s grace has changed their daily life inside the prison and gives them hope for life beyond the bars.
Then we were escorted to the other side of the facility, the Level 2 dormitory. This was a single large room that up to 200 men live and sleep in. Though the dormitory had very high ceilings, with 100 bunk beds, 200 lockers, and 200 chairs, the space was full. Men had access to a dormitory-style bathroom. They also ate in the chow hall and had time for outside recreation. Some men also had jobs that paid between 25 cents and 45 cents an hour.
Here we met with two men who are active in the church there. (They call their small group of fellow believers their church.) They told us about their bible studies, worship services, and morning prayer. They were planning a ramen potluck to reach out to some of the other men who read their bibles but did not participate in the church activities. Being a Christian in the dorm carries with it the stigma of being weak, dependent, or not sufficiently masculine. They want to erase this stigma share the hope found in Christ with more men.
In addition to leading worship and bible studies in both parts of the facility (Level 2 and Level 4 offenders are not to interact), Chaplain Ritter supervises the religious gatherings of 12 other faith groups. Religious gatherings must be supervised by either the chaplain or an approved volunteer. Because Keen Mountain is a remote facility, there are no local volunteers who come into the prison to help lead these other groups. So this responsibility falls to Chaplain Ritter.
Another important aspect of Chaplain Ritter’s ministry is visiting with offenders who are in segregation. He is able to have one on one conversations with men who are isolated from the rest of the prison population. We did not visit the segregation area or meet with any men who were currently in segregation. However, I am certain that those conversations are sure and certain signs of God’s grace and presence with the men there.
There is a lot to be said about the state of the United States criminal justice system, however, one thing that I knew and now have witnessed is that prison chaplains are beacons of light in the darkness. Their work is difficult, particular, and irreplaceable.
The Commonwealth of Virginia does not provide any funding to the chaplaincy program. GraceInside provides all of the funds to support the chaplains across the state prisons. Currently, they have a contract with the Department of Corrections that funnel some of the funds from the commissary to support faith-based services. However, this small amount is not able to support full-time chaplain work.
In order for Chaplain Ritter to continue his life-changing work at forty hours a week at Keen Mountain, GraceInside needs $22,000 more by the end of the year. I invite you prayerfully consider supporting this ministry with a contribution to GraceInside designated for Keen Mountain.