“More than 2,000 people are released each year from a Massachusetts correctional facility,” explains Warren Hicks, pastor of the Worcester Fellowship. “Many people are released with very little money and little in the way of food, clothing and personal hygiene items, making it hard to find housing and steady employment. For many ex-offenders, the highest risk of returning to prison comes within the first few weeks or months after their release if they don’t find enough support to help them through their transition.”
Empowering ex-offenders to achieve success at re-entry is one of goals of the Worcester Fellowship, an outdoor church with a congregation that encompasses the homeless and “at-risk” community, Hicks explains. The church’s mission is to “end isolation by nurturing community and providing spiritual care…regardless of race, class or income, gender identity, disability, religion, sexual orientation, criminal record, immigration status or housing situation,” he adds.
“Through the grant we’ve been able to prepare backpacks containing items like soap, shampoo, deodorants, toothbrushes and toothpaste, dental floss, feminine hygiene items, socks, t-shirts and underwear,” Hicks says. He adds that encouragement and personal support from the outdoor ministry contributes to the self-esteem of ex-offenders in re-entry. Worship is held on the Worcester Commons each Sunday afternoon.
The ministry to ex-offenders began nine years ago, says Noelle Datillo, who plays a key volunteer leadership role visiting the Worcester County House of Correction, Bristol County House of Correction, MCI Concord, MCI Framingham, Old Colony Correctional, Bridgewater Treatment Center and MCI Gardner. Datillo’s volunteer ministry consists of visits and writing letters.
“I’m not sure how people hear about our ministry,” Datillo says. “Word of mouth mostly, I think. I have sent flyers to the prison re-entry specialist in Worcester so people coming out of the county jail will know what services we have. The people who receive the backpacks have been very grateful, mainly that people are thinking about them and are aware of the challenges they face. Some people have come to our services as a result of the ministry, but whether they come or not we have made a connection with them. We really don’t require anything of them.” Datillo explains it has been a long process to clear the hurdle of getting approved to be a prison volunteer.
“We’re committed to educating indoor (housed) congregations about the needs and struggles of ex-offenders returning from prison,” Hicks says. As a result, other congregations have furnished items to be included in the backpacks. “Based on the numbers of people being released from prison every year it is likely that many churches will have someone in their congregation who is going through this difficult transition. The grant really helped us conduct this educational part of our ministry, which we call ‘Empowerment Matters’.”
Some of the grant funds have been used by Worcester Fellowship members to prepare kits for Church World Service. The kits contain school or hygienic items given to people throughout the world experiencing poverty.
The Matthew 25 Grant initiative, sponsored by ABCUSA and the Board of General Ministries, is funded by a generous, anonymous donor whose goal is to help meet the needs of “housing, feeding, education and health with regard to the less fortunate.” In Fall 2015, a total of 69 applicants received funding ranging from $500 to $5,000 with a total awarded of $169,140. Grant applications are welcomed once annually by September 1.
The Matthew 25 Grant process is structured to help small ministries with limited staff time. For more information on the Grant and application process visit: www.abc-usa.org/matthew25/