VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS 3/6/14)—A late January trip to Las Cucharas Prison, Ponce, Puerto Rico, was led by Rev. Fela Barrueto, American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) national coordinator, Prisoner Re-entry and Aftercare Ministry, which is funded through ABHMS’ America for Christ Offering. ABHMS has taken the bold step of encouraging its 5,300 congregations to live out Jesus’ mandate to visit those in U.S. jails and prisons (Matthew 25:36). The following reflection was written by Dr. Stan Moody, who participated in the trip.
“Pray for my mother!” “Pray for my family!” “Pray for my sister!” “Pray for my injury!” “Pray!” “Pray!” “Pray!” These were the cries of inmates at Las Cucharas Prison, Ponce, Puerto Rico, as their arms reached and hands grasped at me and 11 other visitors through the food tray slots during a late January visit to the two-tier segregation unit.
Supplied with extensive training manuals and aids, the Rev. Fela Barrueto, American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS) national coordinator, Prisoner Re-entry and Aftercare Ministry, has been commissioned to build a network of lay and ordained chaplains already serving their communities as re-entry specialists. As a former prison chaplain and creator of the Maine Prison Chaplaincy Corps, I am privileged to be included in that network. We train and video-conference together. We support each other in prayer and visit prisons together. We meet sometimes twice a year to share our experience and vision. Each mission being driven entirely by local conditions and needs, our network is a unique model representing a wide range of social, spiritual, ethnic and cultural diversity.
Ministering in this too-often-forgotten corner of the Kingdom of God, we 20 chaplains from Maine to California are united in our desire to encourage each other in our unique local ministries. We reach out to those in our American Baptist Churches USA congregations who have been personally touched by the oppressive U.S. corrections system—as many as one person in three. We encourage them to become involved in empowering returning citizens to rise above their circumstances and find in the local community of Christ a love that surpasses all understanding.
Puerto Rico and Beyond
For the January trip to Puerto Rico, we were guests of our partner and brother, the Rev. Carlos Padilla, pastor of First Baptist Church of Guayanilla, Puerto Rico. Some of us were dependent on a translator. For others of us, it was a homecoming, with Carlos’ wife, Ivelisse Rodriquez, and Chaplain Monsita Fraticelli leading the entire “congregation” in a rousing chorus of praise and worship. Carlos and our brother, the Rev. Osvaldo Jimenez from New Jersey, preached as can be done only in Hispanic tradition.
“What is local about the prison culture of Puerto Rico?” I wondered. As if on cue, journalist Lizette Alvarez of The New York Times answered my question in an article published Feb. 81. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory of “3.6 million people that is treated in large part like a state” but cannot declare bankruptcy to recover from its deficit junk bond status.
Per-capita income in beautiful Puerto Rico is around $15,400—“half that of Mississippi, the poorest state”—but with soaring living costs. Thirty-seven percent of households receive food stamps; power bills are more than twice that on the mainland. With only 41.3 percent of working age residents employed, and one in four jobs being in government, Puerto Rico’s professional class is moving stateside. Incarceration rates are about mid-range, compared to those of the mainland states. The prisoners for whom we prayed at Las Cucharas were mostly young men, presumably among the 15.6 percent unemployed and likely engaged in one of the few growth industries, narcotrafficking.
Income Disparity and Incarceration Rates
The United States and Singapore, with the highest income disparity in the developed world, also boast the highest incarceration rates. Conversely, Japan and Finland, with the lowest income disparity, have the lowest incarceration rates2. In Puerto Rico, with the middle and upper-middle classes moving stateside, taking jobs with them, the poor become poorer, the rich become self-protective behind gated communities, and the dispossessed become prime candidates for one of America’s growth industries, corrections.
God has called His Church to engage and to remedy unique social conditions in every urban and rural community in America. In recent years, however, the Church of Jesus Christ seems to have turned inward into what author Reggie McNeal refers to as “vendors of religious good and services.”3
Our Plea to You
We, who have joined together to advance the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those citizens returning from our jails and prisons, pray and plead that you will find it in your heart to accept this most gratifying mission. We will come and speak to your congregations. We will share with you our passion and experiences. We will visit your jails and prisons. We will write about your experiences. We will provide resources to train and to help. We will welcome you to share with us.
God bless you as you labor in His vineyard. May He put on your heart this pressing need.
Dr. Stan Moody, senior pastor of Columbia Street Baptist Church, Bangor, Maine, has served in the Maine State Legislature and as a chaplain at Maine State Prison. He is author of five books, the latest of which is “Let My People Go!: Following Jesus into Our Jails and Prisons” (WestBow Press, 2013). Moody’s numerous articles on prison reform may be read at www.scribd.com/stanmoody.
American Baptist Home Mission Societies—the domestic mission arm of American Baptist Churches USA—ministers as the caring heart and serving hands of Jesus Christ across the United States and Puerto Rico through a multitude of initiatives that focus on discipleship, community and justice.
American Baptist Churches is one of the most diverse Christian denominations today, with over 5,200 local congregations comprised of 1.3 million members, across the United States and Puerto Rico, all engaged in God’s mission around the world.
 Alvarez, L. (2014, February 8). Economy and crime spur new Puerto Rico exodus. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/09/us/economy-and-crime-spur-new-puerto-rican-exodus.html?hpw&rref=us&_r=0
2 Wilkinson, R. How economic inequality harms societies. TED Conferences LLC. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/richard_wilkinson.html
3 McNeal, R. (2009). Missional renaissance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, p. 23.