The Benediction

May the Lord torment you. May the Lord disturb you. May the Lord keep before you the faces of the despised, rejected, lonely and oppressed. May the Lord give you strength and courage and compassion to make this a better world. And may you do your very best to make this a better city, a better state, a better world. And after you have done your best, may the Lord grant you peace. Amen. 

When I first read this benediction attributed to a Bishop White of an Indiana conference (I have no clue as to his denomination) it struck me as a description of my halting answer to the call God has had on my life since before time began.

It was 18 years ago that I attended to a worship service for the first time after a brief 35 year hiatus. I didn’t come to worship, I came to hear my new wife sing in her choir. It was a couple of years after that service that we both went on an Emmaus weekend and I began to feel nudged by God that he had a plan for me.

One day a friend named Chris from the Emmaus community asked me if I would serve on Kairos prison ministry team. He described it as Emmaus on steroids. As soon as he said the word prison, I said ‘hell no!’ and he finished his spiel to my back as I walked away/

I didn’t want to go because I had already been. Not to serve on a ministry team but to pay my personal debt to society. From 1972 when I returned from my stint in Viet Nam to 1986 I was doing what I called life in prison on the installment plan.

It took another year of Chris pestering me before I agreed to serve on one Kairos weekend contingent on his promise to never ask me again. So in 2005 I was a part of my first Kairos team. How many of you have baked cookies for a Kairos weekend. God bless you all. That simple act of kindness has broken through the walls of denial, hate, shame, and self-defense of many a convicted felon and opened their minds to the possibility of not just their own personal redemption through Jesus, but of active discipleship both inside while they serve their time and, if they are released, continued discipleship in their lives after incarceration. Mathew 25:36 reads “I was in prison, and you visited me”. If you have baked Kairos cookies you have visited Jesus while he was in prison.

Chris never asked me to go on another Kairos weekend. He didn’t have to. My lord tormented me, disturbed me, and kept before me the faces of the men incarcerated in West Tennessee State Prison. As a result, I have served on a more than a dozen Kairos teams. I also have led Bible studies, and 12 step recovery meetings, up at West Tennessee State prison.

Increasingly, I became convinced that God had additional plans for me. I came to believe that what incarcerated  men (and women) need most is what we take for granted. They needed a church in which they could learn and grow in their Christian faith, where they could be discipled, learn their spiritual gifts, and how to use them to bring the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. And I knew that God wanted me to plant a church for them inside those walls, to minister to and with them both inside and, if they were released, to do everything I could to help them transition back into society.

What an order. I entered Seminary 10 years ago and I attended the last in-class session of my final class to complete my Masters of Divinity degree at Memphis Theological Seminary. I will be ordained by the Christion Church Disciples of Christ. In my first year of seminary a pastor named Diane Harrison spoke in one of my classes about her new endeavor to plant a church in the State Prison for women here in Memphis. I chased her out to the parking lot and asked her if I could help with that, and she said yes. My wife and I have been a part of that ministry ever since. About three years ago The United Methodist Conference finally recognized that ministry as a congregation and it is now Grace Place United Methodist Church inside a Tennessee State Prison.

A little over a year ago, due to the number of ladies we are incarcerating in Tennessee, all the men on the medium security side of West Tennessee State Prison were dispersed to other prisons and the ladies serving time at the women’s prison here, as well as many women from the other women’s prisons around the state, were moved up there..

And Mark Luttrell State prison here in Memphis was re-imagined as a transitional prison for men with three years or less left on their sentences. This opened up an opportunity for me to answer my call fully. In early August of this year I met with the chaplain there and have since been using all that I have learned from my years of experience with Grace Place, and from training I received from and organization named Prison Congregations of America to begin another Church Plant in Mark Luttrell Transitional Center.

I started with leading a worship service there on Thursday evenings and a Bible study on Friday evenings. On the front end I told the men who came about my call to plant a church inside and that I needed their help. And I began to try to garner support of DOC churches to be sponsoring congregations for that effort. We are now Prisoners of Hope Christian Church (DOC).

We have already had two men released and both immediately engaged with an outside church in their home towns and are doing well. Prisoners of Hope has helped each of them by meeting some of their immediate needs, and the last to be released stayed with Joy and I in our home a couple of weeks ago long enough to come here and worship with us at lindenwood and. After the service, he was given access to the clothes closet to get a couple of outfits. So we as the church are already actively helping with this ministry.

We are still small. My wife Joy and I are the only outside volunteers that are certified by Tennessee Department of Corrections for this endeavor. I have opened a bank account for Prisoners of hope with $800.00 and have already raised an additional $1600.00 in contributions from others.

There are many ways that you can join in and support this church plant. Most of you are probably not called to go inside, but I hope a few of you are. We have now and will always have a need for more volunteers both inside and out, for regular financial support, and for a community to undergird our efforts with prayer. As the church grows we will need more people qualified to lead efforts beyond worship and Bible study to help these men in their discernment and growth process while inside. That can take many forms limited only by the imaginations of people like us and the regulations of the Department of Corrections.

And once the men are released, they will need a church out here, brothers and sisters in Christ who will welcome them in, accept them as family, mentor them, and love them as Jesus teaches us to love on another.

As a church, the men have adopted Zechariah 9:12 as their verse of promise. It reads “Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” And so once again I find myself doing life in prison on the installment plan. But this time it is God’s plan, and he uses my darkest past experience to help others find their way home.

I ask each of you to please, pray for us and if you feel a nudge, visit us, join us and or support us as you feel nudged in what has become for me the greatest adventure of my life. But whatever you do, don’t miss this opportunity to be a blessing and, in the process, to receive one.

And so …

May the Lord torment you. May the Lord disturb you. May the Lord keep before you the faces of the despised, rejected, lonely and oppressed. May the Lord give you strength and courage and compassion to make this a better world. And may you do your very best to make this a better city, a better state, a better world. And after you have done your best, may the Lord grant you peace. Amen. 

For more information, please email me at reverendbudw@gmail.com

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