Montana faith communities learn about Healing Communities Partnership

Montana faith communities learn about Healing Communities Partnership

Montana faith communities learn about Healing Communities Partnership

Story submitted by Jana Staton, First UMC Missoula
Association of Christians Legislative Committee Chair
Photo by Rev. John Daniels, First UMC Missoula

"How can our congregations become safe places to share the experience of being involved with the criminal justice system?" With that blunt question, the Reverend Doug Walker, National Director for Criminal Justice Reform for the General Board of Church and Society of The United Methodist Church, came to Montana in November to conduct two Healing Communities training workshops in Missoula and Butte, along with meetings in six other cities – Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena, Bozeman, Billings, and Rocky Boy – all in one week! In keeping with our Methodist tradition, this national UMC-sponsored training was thrown open to all faith congregations in our communities. Over 100 Montana clergy and lay members participated, from 45 denominations spread across the theological spectrum.
Healing Communities training has a strong research foundation and is designed to provide the framework for congregations to develop their own unique ministries as "Stations of Hope," both for those in their own congregations and in the community whose lives are impacted by the criminal justice system – family members, children, incarcerated individuals and parolees, as well victims of crime.

The day-long workshops in Butte and Missoula began with some tough questions for reflection and honest response about our own fears of the stigma that comes from having a family member, or someone we know who is incarcerated? It quickly became clear that personal involvement with the criminal justice system is a taboo topic in congregational life.
Pastor Wendy Ochs of Billings Hope Evangelical in Billings, said what she valued about the Healing Communities approach is that:

"It forces us to look at how our congregations can become a safe place for those, including our own members, facing the stigma of involvement with the criminal justice system, as family, victims of crime, or as persons with felony records. We can raise our hands and ask for prayers for a child or parent with cancer; can we do that for a brother, sister or child in prison? Is this a safe place to share that burden?"
The stigma and misconceptions of prison and crime mark anyone who's touched by it. Our silence feeds the myth that "some people" are not worthy of genuine care, concern and compassion, and outside God's love.  
Ochs pointed out that it's easy to sell the need to visit those in prison as a ministry, but now women who have been part of Hope Evangelical's prison ministry are being released. Members of her congregation are getting a first-hand education in the reality of what it's like to come out of a long prison sentence with nothing – no family support, income, place to live, or work, and encounter barriers and stigma everywhere of having a felony record.
The energy and commitment of Walker and the support of UMC-GBCS means that he not only visited eight cities in November, but he will return in June 2016 for a week of trainings. Full-day workshops are already scheduled in Helena, in conjunction with YAC, and in Billings during ELCA Lutheran Annual Assembly. Additional Healing Communities workshops (six hours, and there's no fee) in other Montana cities are available if there's interest from Methodist and other faith congregations – just ask. For more information, to schedule or participate in the 2016 workshops, email Rev. Melanie Martin-Dent in Dillon or call 406-560-6371.

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