“We are called to live in our faith and our ministry as Jesus described in Luke 4:16-20: to share the Good News with the poor, relief for captives, recovery of sight for the blind and to set the oppressed free.”
–Rev. June Edwards, superintendent of the North Central District, Florida Conference
In other words, Rev. Edwards said, we are “to offer Christ in every place and in every way that we can.”
To that end, Bishop Ken Carter began talking with Edwards three years ago about starting a United Methodist church inside the Lowell Correctional Institute in Reddick, about 15 miles north of Ocala. It houses about 3,000 women, including three on death row. It is the largest female prison population in the United States.
There are about 35 such congregations in the U.S., including two Methodist churches based in Iowa and Tennessee. In July, the Florida Conference initiated the third Methodist prison congregation with the appointment of Rev. Kristina (Kris) Schonewolf to serve as pastor at the new church at Lowell.
Edwards and Rev. Daniel Jackson, former director of Vital Church Initiatives, worked with Prison Congregations of America (PCA), a consulting group that helps establish congregations in prisons across the United States.
“That facility had been on my mind,” Edwards said. “We began to really look at how we could make a connection there.”
The Lowell facility has had challenges. In recent years Lowell employees were accused of inappropriate behavior against inmates, some details of which came out last year in a meeting in Ocala.
“There’s so many issues,” former inmate Debra Bennett told The Miami Herald. “I really hope you guys listen to us because I feel like this is the first time we’ve had a platform; there’s so many stories.’’
Schonewolf, who most recently served as pastor at Belleview UMC, is vital in maintaining the connection that Edwards and Jackson established. She will work in tandem with three established chaplains, conducting worship services and scheduling Bible study opportunities. There are many other possible ministries.
“We'll wait and see what they want to do,” Schonewolf said of the inmates. “It's their church.”
Schonewolf also will work to build a base of volunteers from outside Lowell who would attend services inside. They will support the inmates and partner with churches where former inmates could become members after their reentry into society.
Schonewolf, 58, attended Palmer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania and has been pastoring for ten years. Her background includes experience with Residents Encounter Christ, a nationwide, inter-denominational Christian jail ministry and her work in a Delaware teen detention center. She said she instantly felt called when she heard about the Lowell opening.
“People need Jesus everywhere,” she said. “But when people are in jail or prison, a lot of them have hit rock bottom and often are more interested or more willing to hear the gospel.”
|Rev. Kris Schonewolf|
Schonewolf's official start date was July 1, but her entry was delayed due to the need for an extensive background check. To prepare for the assignment, she took for a three-hour tour, and she also spoke with several pastors, including UMC prison ministers in Ohio and Tennessee.
She spoke with the PCA and underwent church-planting training.
Stewardship is always a concern for churches.
Schonewolf transferred from an established Belleview church that has 175 members to a prison with approximately 3,000 “residents”—as some prison ministries prefer to call inmates—many of whom have little or no means for making monetary donations.
She says she can pass the plate during a service, “but I'm not going to get much in it.”
So while Schonewolf works at planting and pastoring a church, she will approach financial stewardship like a missionary.
She will hold church services any day but Sunday. That's when she'll be visiting churches from Tallahassee to Key West, preaching, speaking and explaining her ministry. She will ask churches and individuals for donations because building a donor base and leading a self-supporting church is her priority. The role fits. Before she became a pastor, she was in corporate sales.
“I know how to sell,” she said with a laugh.
When Schonewolf visits churches, one of the first questions she may hear is how she'll measure success. Edwards stressed the importance of “effectiveness and transformation” rather than “success.”
The inmates' offering will be how God is calling them to use their gifts within that particular body of Christ, Edwards said.
Schonewolf said she spent four “invaluable” days training with Renae Griggs, executive director of PCA. Griggs, who has more than 30 years experience with prison ministries, said success should be measured qualitatively.
“Based on my observations over all of these years, the one factor that I am absolutely persuaded makes a difference—above all others—is when justice-involved men and women come to fully understand and embrace their identity in Christ,” Griggs said in an email.
Another factor is “when upon their release they are lovingly received and supported by spiritual mentors, along with a community of non-judging believers who are equipped with the knowledge, skills and resources to walk with them on their freedom journey.”
Schonewolf is seeking invitations from anyone who wants to hear her preach on Sundays or speak to church groups about her church. Send inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer in Venice.