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Love and literacy behind prison walls


Little Rock’s Westover Hills Presbyterian Church continues literacy program virtually

February 3, 2021

Left to right, the Rev. Sally Johnson, former program student Franki Briscoe, and Kathy Rateliff. Briscoe visited Westover Presbyterian Church to share her prison experience and new life after incarceration. She dreams of opening a halfway house. (Photo contributed by Kathy Rateliff)

When a group of Presbyterian women came to the state prison where Shanon Anderson was incarcerated, she quickly learned the program they offer provides more than reading and writing. It’s all about love.

“They walk in. They don’t know you, and we don’t know them. They don’t know what you’ve done, and they don’t care,” Anderson said. “They love you no matter what, and the whole world could really take a lesson from that.”

The Presbyterian Women’s (PW) group from Westover Hills Presbyterian Church, a congregation of nearly 200 members in Little Rock, Arkansas, has touched more than 3,200 lives through its literacy programs for people who are incarcerated.

The program started in 2016 with four women inmates at the Pulaski County Jail. It now includes classes for men, along with programs at the county’s juvenile detention center and the J. Aaron Hawkins Sr. Center correctional facility in Wrightsville.

The PW group recently received a $3,000 grant from the Synod of the Sun that will expand art offerings for incarcerated youth, purchase books and materials for teaching re-entry skills and buy equipment for distance learning. The Hawkins facility has been on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting those classes on hold. The women have worked with county jail officials to resume the classes online.

According to church organizer Kathy Rateliff, the ministry was inspired by a talk given by Susan McDougal, who was one of the people prosecuted and jailed in the Whitewater real estate controversy of the 1980s and ’90s. McDougal was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2001. She now serves as a chaplain at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

McDougal said she doesn’t deserve the credit for the women’s extraordinary efforts. She only shared her experience serving time in seven jails, where she repeatedly saw a need for prisoners to become better educated. Westover Hills Presbyterian Church, which has accepted the Matthew 25 invitation, took the ball and ran with it.

The goals of the Westover Hills Literacy Team — made up of 12 women from the church and community — include challenging, inspiring and providing educational activities that promote self-esteem and self-worth, while teaching skills for re-entry and literacy. They also assign homework.

“It was a real learning experience with us,” Rateliff said. “Most of us had never done any work with people behind bars. We didn’t know what to expect. They are just like people everywhere. If they hadn’t had on orange jumpsuits, you wouldn’t have known.”

Anderson, 39, who was paroled from the Hawkins facility last year, said she was nine months pregnant when she met Rateliff and her co-teacher, retired Presbyterian minister the Rev. Sally Johnson.

“When I was in prison, I had no cards, no letters, no family visits. Sally and Kathy came and they gave hugs to everyone,” she said. “They teach you that you are still a lady even when you are in a prison cell, and they teach you God’s message.”

Anderson said the women continue to follow up with her, provide support and check in on how she is doing in her job. She is grateful.

“It’s all about love,” Anderson said. “People showing people that, on their darkest days, they are still loved.”

Johnson, 82, said she joined the work at Rateliff’s request about two years ago, after the death of her husband. This experience has been very different from her previous ministry contexts, she said.

“These are damaged families. They have certainly not had the educational and cultural opportunities that I grew up with,” she said. “This has given me the experience and glimpses of lives like so many others are leading and that has gotten them into trouble with the law.”

Johnson prays with inmates and makes herself available for counseling.

“I remind them that they are God’s beloved daughters, and God wants them to make better lives,” Johnson said. “Ninety-five percent of them grew up in a fundamentalist Christian environment. That’s the Christianity they have been exposed to. A lot of that Christianity is very punitive, that God is going to get you if you don’t do right. I want them to see a very different picture of God.”

 Rev. Matt Curry, Special to Presbyterian News Service

Today’s Focus:  Virtual Literacy Program

Let us join in prayer for: 

PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff

Betsie Chilton, Presbyterian Foundation
Moongil Cho, Presbyterian Mission Agency

Let us pray:

Heavenly Father, your unconditional love inspires us to be loving, welcoming and hospitable to our neighbors. Pour into our hearts your compassion and strengthen and guide us as we go forth to make your kingdom tangible. Grant us your peace and surround us with your presence. Amen.

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