Thursday, February 7, 2013

Taking Families for Prison Visits

Have you ever wondered about ways to put your faith into action--action that makes a difference in the world? Well, I am happy to share the following story written by Sonia Evanstad, a longtime member of First Pres. and committed follower of Jesus. Her story of Prison Ministry gives us a way to put our faith into action. Be sure to take action when you reach the end of her note
Since the mid '90s our Prison Ministry has been transporting families to visit loved ones in prison. In the beginning, church members picked up family members and drove them to the prisons and then back home.
Today we use the church bus. Prison Ministry bus drivers are licensed as commercial drivers as are all members who drive the church bus. Our ministry is a collaboration with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois  (LSSI) which maintains a ministry with women in prison and their families.
As prison policy changes, so does our mission. For a number of years we went every other month to the Federal prison at Pekin (and in the off months to the Illinois prison at Dwight). Then women at Pekin were moved to two prisons downstate, well out of range for a day's journey. We now are going once a month to Dwight; but those trips are likely numbered. The state plans to close that facility and may move women incarcerated there to the prison at Lincoln. Though this is farther away than Dwight, Prison Ministry hopes to continue serving families by taking them to Lincoln.
You may wonder what a trip on the church bus to one of the prisons is like. Ahead of time LSSI informs families of the availability of the First Pres bus to take them to visit their relatives. LSSI then provides us with of list of family members we will take. On the day of the trip, someone from the agency is available by phone to check should a family not show up or, occasionally, to OK our taking a family that shows up but is not on the list. 
We take donuts and children's books and a volunteer distributes these and good cheer to all passengers. The trip begins in the church lot. We head via the Edens/Kennedy/Dan Ryan expressways to the shopping center at 87th St. and the Dan Ryan, where we meet the families. After loading, we head for whichever prison is scheduled. We drop off the families, making certain it is possible for them to see their relatives that day (and, occasionally, it is not). Then we do two things while the families visit: find a spot for lunch and head for the local library—a great place to nap, browse, knit, and read. After the visiting time, we pickup families and head back to 87th and the Dan Ryan where we drop folks off and head back to Evanston.
In all, it's a tender experience. Through the years bus drivers and volunteers have become acquainted with regular riders and have been privileged to celebrate with them their last trip to visit a loved one soon to be released. Our knitting group celebrated one such occasion, presenting the woman with a prayer shawl, sending her love from all of us at First Pres. 
The next trip is to Dwight on March 23. It's an opportunity to act in remembrance of the words of Our Lord—do this to the least of mine and you do this also to me. If you think God might be calling you to this ministry, contact Peter Steffen or (312) 961-4176.