Preacher, We are Dying in Here!

Posted on February 6, 2012 by Kenyatta Gilbert No Comments


By Harold Dean Trulear | Associate Professor of Applied Theology, Howard University School of Divinity | National Director, Healing Communities Prison Ministry and Reentry Project, Philadelphia Leadership Foundation, Philadelphia, PA

For More Information: 215-726-6047 or  610-804-4687

Harold D. Trulear, Ph.D.



“Chaplain, I know I am not called to prison ministry. I just can’t deal with inmates.”  So opened the Q and A of one of my classes at the seminary.  The guest chaplain responded: “Well then, I don’t know how you see yourself as a Christian, since an inmate died for your sins!”

Prison ministry is every believer’s business, every minister’s milieu and every pastor’s purview. Just because one may not be a prison chaplain, or an “official volunteer” at a jail, a marvelous meeting of Matthew 25 and mass incarceration make necessary the nomination for every church to become involved.  And even if one never sets foot in a correctional facility, the fact that many an inmate has ties to local congregations through history, family and/or friends means that those left behind people in the pews of our congregations are without a Word to acknowledge their painful predicament.

When I am asked how one preaches to families of the incarcerated, my stock answer pops out like an ad on Google: “Pastors preach to the families of inmates every day. The problem lies in the stigma and shame of incarceration which prohibits those family members from trusting the issue with the congregation (and sometimes even the pastor, as in “pastor-my son is in jail-pray for me-but don’t tell anyone)”.

The numbers do not lie.  A Pew Center study in 2008 recorded a US prison population at 2.3 million, and that does not include county jails.  1 in 9 African American adult males under 35 is in prison, and if you add jails, probation, parole, and alternative confinement (like house arrest) the number leaps to 1 in 3!  And their mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers, sons and daughters, kin and kindred sit before us every Sunday suffering in silence.  Unforgiveness, bewilderment, anger, loss, loneliness, sorrow, fatigue cloud their emotional and mental skies with no prophetic forecast of transformation on the horizon.

How do you preach to those who can’t disclose?

I tell them God loves inmates…if God treated the inmate like my student inquisitor, we’d have to eliminate the story of Joseph from Genesis, shun Jeremiah in his cistern jail, dismiss Daniel and his furnace-fated friends on death row.  The New Testament would be less rich without the apocalyptic insight of a political prisoner, the challenge to be “living stones” from one who did hard time, and a convict whose cousin sent him messages of hope about sick folk getting well, the dead being raised, and the poor having the gospel preached to them.  And before the naysayers hit me with the difference between the “righteous” prisoner and the convicted felon, I’d make sure they heard about a man who delivered murder before he delivered a people, and a psalmist whose conspiracy to commit murder makes me shudder when someone says, “you the man”!

All of this creates space—a sacred space—for families who struggle with their connection to incarceration and need assurance that God still loves them and their imprisoned loved one.  After preaching such sermons, I have given altar calls for families of the incarcerated in dozens of congregations—and the numbers responding have ranked anywhere from twenty to a hundred. Testimonies have broken out, tears have flowed from dammed ducts, and folks have found embrace at the foot of the cross, where family members of the condemned could offer one another mutual comfort.  It is a freeing moment, often let loose by a sermon on a text written in antiquity by a religious persecutor turned disciple turned inmate.  I thank the church for not forgetting about that incarcerated preacher who while doing time on prison lock down proclaimed, “I can do all things, through Christ who strengthens me”.

Would somebody please get the lights?