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Hagar’s Community Church launches reentry ministry

Reminding returning citizens they are ‘holy and beloved’ children of God

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service

The Rev. Riley Pickett is reentry pastor at Hagar’s Community Church and an alumna of the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer Program. (Contributed photo)

LOUISVILLE — Though she’s the reentry pastor of Hagar’s Community Church, the Rev. Riley Pickett has never been inside the Washington Corrections Center for Women. That’s because Pickett’s ministry begins when residents of the largest women’s prison in the state of Washington are released.

“Everything I’m doing is built off the conversations I’m having with the folks who are getting out,” Pickett said. “We’re doing this kind of inside-outside model. Pastor Layne Brubaker is on the inside and I’m on the outside. Because I’ve never had a badge and gone inside, I can be in contact with the folks who get out, while Layne can’t.”

Established by the Presbytery of Olympia in 2018, Hagar’s Community Church is a 1001 New Worshiping Community of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the only Presbyterian member of the Prison Congregations of America network. The congregation takes its name from the story of Hagar in Genesis 16 and 21. It has grown from a handful of resident attendees to six to nine socially distanced worship services weekly.

Brubaker and Pickett created a form to help people scheduled for release to request reentry assistance.

It’s kind of a “bridge,” Pickett said, describing the reentry ministry that started in August.

“When people get out, I call them up — sometimes the day they get out — just to start a relationship, start conversations. Every relationship looks different. Some people I talk to a couple times and some people I talk to every week, sometimes multiple times a week,” Pickett said.

Although she doesn’t like the word “help,” some people leave incarceration with nothing, while others have family support. Having a church contact to be there to listen to where they are and what they need and to make connections to nonprofit resources within the community does help, Pickett said. She sees her role as providing holistic support that cares for the woman’s soul and mind, as well as her physical needs. When a returning citizen needed a job recently, Pickett contacted a nonprofit in the city where the person is living.

“Finding a job, housing, community and belonging, reunifying with their families, staying sober, making sure their mental health is covered, or even just having adequate food, clothing and personal care items …. These are just some of the challenges people may run into,” Pickett said, all of which have been complicated by the pandemic.

“I can’t do everything, but I do the best I can to connect and tap into the places that are already doing the work,” Pickett said.

Hagar’s Community Podcast is a ministry of Hagar’s Community Church, guided by The Rev. Riley Pickett, reentry pastor. The podcast explores spirituality and supports folks in reentry through meditations and reflections, interviews, spiritual practices, stories and more.

She has also launched a reentry training for churches in Washington state — not just Presbyterian churches, but churches of any denomination. The training covers the challenges of reentry, statistics and how congregations can be involved in the reentry ministry, including prayer, financial support, education and advocacy. The highest level of involvement is opting into a new reentry program called The Wellspring, which takes its name from Genesis 21:19, when God opened Hagar’s eyes to a well of water in the wilderness.

“We call it ‘The Wellspring’ with the understanding that God is the well,” Pickett said. “We are working from a place of God as our source of abundance. It’s our vision to have Wellsprings across the state of Washington, sustaining life in all directions, all rooted in God — our Great Wellspring.”

Pickett said because it’s a very new vision, “there’s definitely room for development and change.”

Longview Presbyterian Church in Longview, Washington, is working with Pickett to pilot The Wellspring reentry program and to gather data and statistics along the way.

If a church opts to take part in The Wellspring, this means it agrees to welcome a formerly incarcerated individual into the congregation and walk alongside that individual for a certain amount of time. As they walk alongside, they listen to the person and provide spiritual care to assist the individual in successful reintegration in the community.

“Fury and Grace: 40 Days of Paintings and Poetry from Prison,” edited by Rev. Riley Pickett and the Revs. Layne and Crawford Brubaker, takes readers on a passionate pilgrimage using Scripture, poetry, paintings and prayers from the dust of Ash Wednesday to the dawn of Resurrection Sunday. The Lenten guide invites the reader to walk with members of Hagar’s Community Church and with Jesus, who knows what it is like to be arrested, rejected and despised. All the artwork and poetry was created by the women of Hagar’s Community Church. Book profits support the ministry.

Pickett is an alumna of the Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, an ecumenical service opportunity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at sites throughout the U.S. and around the world. As a YAV in 2016–17, part of Pickett’s time was spent serving at Okra Abbey, a 1001 New Worshiping Community planted by the Revs. Layne and Crawford Brubaker in a garden in the Pigeon Town Neighborhood of New Orleans, where Layne also served as a YAV site coordinator.

Getting to know the Brubakers during her YAV year inspired Pickett to begin thinking about serving in a nontraditional church setting after she graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in May 2020. Although Hagar’s Community Church had envisioned a reentry program, the pandemic brought the need for a reentry ministry to the forefront sooner rather than later.

“What I’ve heard from the people I’m in regular contact with is that it’s nice knowing that I’m there. I’m someone they can count on, someone to pray with them,” Pickett said. “It’s calming and comforting, and they feel supported. I think it’s just nice to know that there’s this person on the outside, not in their family or group of friends, who is part of the church reaching out to them.”

The Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program is an ecumenical, faith-based service opportunity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) at sites throughout the U.S. and around the world. YAVs (ages 19-30) accompany local agencies working to address root causes of poverty and reconciliation. Alongside this work, volunteers explore the meaning of their Christian faith and accountability to their neighbors in the community with peers and mentors. The YAV year is August to August. Applications are being accepted now. Learn more and apply.

To reach out to the Rev. Riley Pickett about reentry training, contact her at hagarsreentry@gmail.com or 253-414-0952. Pre-order Hagar’s Community Church’s Lenten guide “Fury and Grace” by clicking here. Access all episodes of the Hagar’s Community Church podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcast, Spotify or wherever you listen to podcasts. Learn more about Hagar’s Community Church and the new reentry program at hagarscommunitychurch.com.


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