Finding Jesus in prison

New worshiping community in Olympia Presbytery creates a sanctuary for God’s beloved exiles

by Paul Seebeck | Presbyterian News Service

This image was adopted for Hagar’s Community Church, a new worshiping community inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women. (Designed by Lauren Wright Pittman, Lewp Studio)

LOUISVILLE — In prison, the Rev. Lane Brubaker has never once felt scared or nervous.  In fact, she’s experienced more joy and laughter there than she could have ever imagined.

Brubaker’s first day in prison was almost exactly a year ago. On December 12 she entered the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). Located in Gig Harbor, it is the largest prison for women in the state — and the only one that houses maximum- and minimum-security inmates.

Brubaker was there, called by Olympia Presbytery, to join them in planting a new worshiping community.  One year later, Hagar’s Community Church has 150 women attending weekly worship services. Fifty women attend a weekly bible study.  Another group of women meets bi-weekly to help plan worship and make decisions of their life together as a congregation.

“It’s completely blown away our goal — which was to have 25 women worshiping by the end of one year,” Brubaker said.

Brubaker said she thinks the women have responded positively because they finally feel safe in a worship service. For whatever reason, she said, church ministries that are present in prisons tend to have a more conservative theological point of view. So a progressive church’s message of inclusiveness for all sexual orientation and gender identities — that was new for most of the women.

They hadn’t heard very much about one of the most important tenants of Reformed theology — that one doesn’t have to earn God’s approval, redemption or love.

“The message that God loves them and that they are more than their worst mistake has been transformative for them,” Brubaker said.

Before the worshipers take communion together, Brubaker typically says these words: “On the night Jesus was betrayed by a friend, he was beaten by police. Then he was arrested and tried. Judged guilty, he was incarcerated and executed by the state.”

This approach, she said, helps the women see that so much of Jesus’s experience is similar to their own.

“At the heart of our faith is the story around incarceration and being in prison,” she said.

Now that Brubaker has been leading worship in prison for a year, she understands in new ways what Jesus was getting at when he said in Matthew 25:36: “I was in prison and you visited me.”

To find Jesus, says the Rev. Lane Brubaker, one has to visit prisons. (Photo courtesy of the Washington State Department of Corrections)

“It’s clear to me now that Jesus is saying, ‘To find me, you have to visit prisons,’” she said. “We are to find Jesus in prison.”

At Hagar’s Community Church, Brubaker has discovered a vulnerability and joyfulness that she hasn’t encountered in other worshiping communities. The women she has gotten to know have had the worst thing happen to them. They have been removed from all that they love and care about. Once you have been taken to that place, Brubaker said, the things that hold you back from getting to know other people and being real and authentic aren’t there anymore.

A supervisor once told Brubaker that people who begin work as a hospital chaplain start to realize they’re going die, which forces them to contemplate truth that they might otherwise avoid. Something similar has happened to her, she said, as the leader of a worshiping community in prison. As she began to get to know the women who are incarcerated, she began to realize how fragile her own freedom is — how easy it could be to lose and how similar she is to those behind bars.

“There are very small things keeping someone from being incarcerated,” she said. “You begin to bump up against things including how you participate in the social inequity of who goes to prison.”

Acknowledging that she is lucky her family is who they are, and that she had economic and educational opportunities, she said, “I could have easily been incarcerated.”

Hagar’s Community Church is a member of Prison Congregations of America. When the Presbytery of Olympia was approached by PCA about starting a congregation at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, the presbytery felt called by God to be the church in the world, according to Brubaker.

“Their attitude,” Brubaker said, “was let’s plant a church in prison and see what happens.”

Brubaker sees how listening to the Holy Spirit and stepping out in faith has impacted the women she serves.  Earlier this year, she told the story of one woman describing that her low for the week was coming to grips with the fact that she would be spending most of the next decade in prison. Then she stated that her high was being able to belong to a Christian community while incarcerated — which she had never imagined and was life-giving to her.

Prior to planting Hagar’s Community Church, Brubaker and her husband Crawford planted Okra Abbey, a 1001 new worshiping community in an community gardening space in the Pigeon Town of New Orleans, where she also served as a Young Adult Volunteer site coordinator.

 Both worshiping communities received support from Mission Program Grants. Available through the Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, the grants support the transforming work of new worshiping communities and mid councils.

 In 2012, the 220th General Assembly of the PC(USA) declared a commitment to a churchwide movement resulting in the creation of 1001 worshiping communities over the next 10 years. At a grassroots level, nearly 500 diverse ‘1001’ communities have formed across the nation.

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