“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.” – The Rev. June Edwards
In other words, Rev. Edwards said the charge is “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 Methodist ministry inside a Florida prison.
Edwards, superintendent of the North Central District in the Florida United Methodist Conference, and the Rev. Daniel Jackson, then-director of Vital Church Initiatives, started doing research and learned about Prison Congregations of America, a consulting group that helps denominations establish worshiping congregations in prisons across the United States.
There currently are about 35 such congregations in the U.S., including two Methodist ministries, based in Iowa and Tennessee. In November, the FLUMC established the third Methodist prison congregation with the appointment of the Rev. Kristina (Kris) Schonewolf to serve as pastor in a new ministry inside Lowell Correctional Institution in Reddick, about 15 miles north of Ocala.
The FLUMC chose the women-only prison because it is one of the most populous women’s CIs in the country. It houses about 3,000 residents (what prison ministries typically call inmates), including three on Death Row.
The facility has some challenges. In recent years Lowell employees faced accusations of inappropriate behavior against residents.
“There’s so many issues,” former resident Debra Bennett said in 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.’’
That prompted Edwards to take action.
“That facility had been on my mind,” she said. “We began to really look at how we could make a connection there.”
Schonewolf, who most recently served as pastor at Belleview UMC in nearby Belleview, is vital to maintaining the connection that Edwards and Jackson established. She will work with two established chaplains, conducting worship services and scheduling Bible study opportunities.
“The Oasis at Lowell Correctional Institute,” as the endeavor is called, began with one worship service and three resident-chosen Bible study opportunities each week.
Schoenwolf also will work to build a base of volunteers from outside the prison. They will support the residents, and help lead the services. The goal is for residents to grow into leadership roles.
Background in jail ministry
Schonewolf, 58, attended Palmer Theological Seminary and has been pastoring for ten years. She was commissioned in 2009 and ordained in 2013.
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 says 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.”
Schonewolf completed state-mandated training, an extensive background check, and had a three-hour tour at Lowell. She also spoke with several pastors, including the UMC prison ministers in Iowa and Tennessee, and had ministry-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 women, many of whom have little or no financial means. She says she can pass the plate during a worship service, “but I'm not going to get much in it.”
Instead, the inmates' offering will be how God is calling them to use their gifts within that particular body of Christ.
So while Schonewolf is tasked with planting and pastoring, she will approach financial stewardship like a missionary. Services are scheduled on Sunday nights; Bible studies are offered on weeknights.
Otherwise, she will travel across the state, preaching and speaking on Sunday mornings to explain her ministry and ask for support.
An important aspect is to connect churches throughout the Conference to the ministry through sharing information, education, and receiving financial contributions. The role fits. Before she became a pastor, Schonewolf worked 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 will measure success. Edwards stressed the importance of effectiveness and transformation rather than the typical definition of success.
Schonewolf says she spent four “invaluable” days training with Renae Griggs, executive director of Prison Congregations of America. Griggs, with more than 30 years experience in 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.
“And 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.”
To that end, another important part of the vision Schonewolf will be working to create and implement is to identify churches willing to be trained to welcome women as they are released from prison.
This is not to provide social services. They would worship with the congregation and be confident that they would be welcome in the church.
Schonewolf says she is seeking invitations from anyone who wants to hear her preach on Sundays or speak before church groups about this ministry. Such inquiries should be made to email@example.com. You also may inquire at theoasislci.org.
--Ed Scott is a freelance writer based in Venice.