Love and literacy behind prison walls

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

by the Rev. Matt Curry | Special to Presbyterian News Service

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

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. —  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.

Members of the Westover Literacy Team holding supplies purchased with a grant from the Synod of the Sun. Back row, left to right: Carol Enderlin, the Rev. Sally Johnson, Kay Stephens and Kathy Rateliff. Kneeling in front is the Rev. Kris Crawford, the church’s transitional pastor. (Photo contributed by Kathy Rateliff)

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 women in this church, they take good works to the limit,” McDougal said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They did it. They told me about it.”

Education is key to future employment, yet formerly incarcerated people are more than twice as likely to have never graduated high school, according to the nonpartisan Prison Policy Initiative (PPI). According to PPI data, more than half of formerly incarcerated people hold only a high school diploma or GED, and 25% hold no credential at all.

The goals of the Westover Hills Literacy Team — made up of 12 women from the church and friends in the 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.”

McDougal said most of the women she was jailed with were younger, and she often found herself sitting on the floor, reading the Bible to them. Many were convicted of drug-related offenses and came from backgrounds of abuse. McDougal found that, unlike the stereotype of a jail inmate, she encountered women who were kind and loving and hungry for an opportunity to make something better of their lives.

“They hated themselves for what they had done. They said, ‘I can never be forgiven for the things I’ve done,’” she said. “They had no one coming to see them. In contrast to me, my whole family was visiting. It was such a rude awakening.”

Anderson, 39, who was paroled from the Hawkins facility in January, 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.”

A happy day for literacy program graduate Shanon Anderson, flanked by Bill Inman, assistant warden, and Wendy Kelley, secretary of corrections, J. Aaron Hawkins Sr. Center, a correctional facility for women and men. In the background is Denese Voss, program coordinator. (Photo contributed by Kathy Rateliff)

 

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

The Rev. Matt Curry is in search of Good News from ministries throughout the Synod of the Sun that are making connections with their congregations and communities. Do you have an idea to share? Send Matt an email at cpcwaxpastor@gmail.com.


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