It’s a pretty foolish idea. A church inside a state prison? When I arrived in Iowa in 2016, that was one of many things that felt amazing, and wonderful, and challenging.
It seemed no less foolish when I had the opportunity to visit worship there in Mitchellville on a cold winter’s night in early 2017. I immediately noticed how dark it was. Yes, there were a few spotlights, but most of the buildings were dark, and the sky was black. It was also very quiet.
You see, in Iowa, we have a United Methodist church inside the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW), the only women’s prison in our state. Ministry began there in 2006 with Rev. Arnette Pint as the first pastor. By February of 2007, the church had chosen its name, Women at the Well, and it was consecrated as a duly constituted congregation of The United Methodist Church. Since 2011 the church has been led by full-time pastor and former attorney Rev. Lee Roorda Schott, along with, more recently, Rev. Paul Witmer. Worship is on Thursday evenings at 7:00 p.m. in the Sacred Place, which is the chapel on the prison grounds.
Part of the foolishness of a church in a prison is how much is out of our control. I certainly felt that, waiting in the entry area, that first time I visited Women at the Well. I had been part of creating a county jail ministry in Michigan, and I understood the importance of being present with those who are incarcerated. This was a prison, however, and my senses were on high alert. I knew I had no control of what would happen.
When someone decided it was time, we passed through two sets of heavy doors and heard them clang shut behind us. I walked with the other visitors and regular worship volunteers through the bitter cold, up a long hill to the Sacred Place, right in the midst of women who live at the prison. I noticed how thin the women’s coats were, but I had to let it go.
Once we arrived inside the Sacred Place, the wisdom of this foolish undertaking became evident. The Holy Spirit was preparing the way. The singing was lusty and joyful, the women were deeply engaged, grace overflowed, and I kept forgetting that we were in prison. It was hard to observe the rule that we weren’t supposed to touch the women. That’s not easy when you’re a hugger. Of course, I wanted to embrace these women because something special was happening. The communion elements, transformed into the body and blood of Christ, were also transforming me as I served them.
What seemed at first like some kind of foolishness has become a vital ministry supported by dozens of United Methodist – and non-UM! – churches in Iowa. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Over the course of a dozen years, hundreds of guests have had the same experience I had, of entering into this most unlikely of places and being deeply blessed there. Women at the Well’s ministries have expanded to include a statewide network of reentry support for women leaving prison in addition to various ministries inside the prison. They include an inside council (leadership group), grief group, civil conversations, Christmas open houses, and even a Vacation Bible School for the grown-up residents!
In 2017, the leaders of Women at the Well adopted this vision statement: to lead the church in love that breaks down walls. They have done this, notably, through helping churches outside the prison think about how they can better welcome people they might have overlooked. That includes people who deal with mental illness (like 70% of the prison population), or addiction (like 80% of the prison population), or sexual assault or domestic violence (like a staggering 90% of the prison population).[i] They’re asking us to do outside the prison what they’ve learned to do inside. How foolish is that?
Women at the Well took that far-reaching vision so seriously that they have rearranged staffing and provided volunteer support so that Pastor Lee could write two books (so far!) on this subject, both published this year. The first, Foolish Church: Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, offers a vision and leadership lessons for how the church outside the prison can learn from what she has discovered inside. The second, The Fools’ Manual, is a study and practice guide (#FoolishChurch) that will help us live out this foolish, countercultural vision. Both books (available on Amazon, Cokesbury and other booksellers) describe a church that:
- doesn’t need us to hide our scars.
- is more about relationships than programs.
- believes and protects.
- builds boundaries, not walls.
- brings its messes into the light.
- has something critically important to offer.
It’s a great and timely vision. I agree with Pastor Lee that “God must long for us as churches to make room for people whose experiences and scars equip them to meet the needs of the overlooked and hidden communities that surround our churches.”[ii] In the foolish places of our world, we dare to do ministry in the name of Jesus, believing that all people are loved by our Creator and have gifts to offer our world. If we take all this seriously, we’ll have to welcome people better. We’ll have to be less judgmental and more open. Our churches will become messier, and some will call us fools. But it’s a foolishness Jesus would recognize. In fact, he calls us to it.
Even as Women at the Well has stepped boldly into these questions of leading the church outside the prison, its role inside the prison has been curtailed over the past year. Leadership and policy changes at the prison have limited the number of programs and volunteers allowed inside the prison, and guests no longer (for now) get to join in worship with the women who live there. Part of the foolishness we signed on for, when Women at the Well began, was to serve within an institution where we aren’t in control.
I have been marveling at how the Holy Spirit continues to lead the way forward for Women at the Well. Even inside the prison, vital worship continues twice a week, with the longstanding weekly worship service on Thursday evening in the Sacred Place, and a small, informal service that takes place in the minimum-custody live-out unit on Tuesday evenings. There’s still a Bible-centered prayer group that meets on Tuesday. The volunteers will tell you they’re just there so the doors can open, for it’s the women who lead this prayerful, supportive community. And Pastor Lee and Pastor Paul have developed a reentry workshop that is drawing 40-50 women each Wednesday afternoon. This lively gathering explores Biblical perspectives and spiritual practices that will support these women on that journey, even as the sharing of stories, experiences, and encouragement strengthens them for what lies ahead.
And with less room to do ministry inside the prison, Women at the Well is intentionally mobilizing for ministry outside. They’re building a relationship with the Fresh Start Women’s Center in Des Moines, a residential work release facility, where they’ll soon be offering twice-monthly reentry and/or spiritual programming that can be replicated through volunteers across Iowa in other work release centers and halfway houses. They’re also partnering with the Iowa Conference Board of Church & Society to facilitate jail ministry across the state. What began as a “church inside the prison,” which drew you and me there for support and assistance, is becoming a more diffuse, shared, and local expression of our love for persons who are incarcerated, jailed, confined, or in need of support. The foolishness continues, and we’re going to be invited to do our part!
Thanks be to God for this foolish church that is messy, raw, and is helping us make room for all.
P.S. Pastor Lee communicates weekly about #FoolishChurch on her blog and on the @Foolish Church Facebook page. In addition, there will be a Foolish Church Conference in Ames, Iowa, November 15-17.
[i] Foolish Church; Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, Lee Roorda Schott, Eugen, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2019, p. xvi.
[ii] Ibid, p. 91.