Pastor’s Column: Rev. Amy Luukkonen, Women’s Prison Chaplain

In this article I will write as my full self; an ordained Christian minister. I serve as a Chaplain in a State institution which by the very nature of the term Chaplain means to serve people of all faiths (or no faith) even when the person or group’s beliefs are so contrary to my own personal beliefs. -Rev. Amy Luukkonen

This has been a challenging year. It has been a year of mentally moving (I actually changed jobs 5 years ago) from a person of the cloth, serving in a large Christian Church nursing facility where I was more Pastor then Chaplain to a women’s correctional facility where I am now more of a Religious Coordinator then Chaplain. (The title is Religious Coordinator/Chaplain.) Even though I made the actual job change 5 years ago it has taken me this long to understand the uniqueness of this call.  I no longer work within the freedom of the Authority of my Office, which is in the gray; I now work in a very strict position of the black and white. I thought I knew or at least could figure out what working in a prison would be like but I was in for a surprise.

There is no flux, no softening of the boundaries; no pushing at the edges when working as a prison Chaplain that I might have previously had working within the Authority of my Office as a Pastor/Chaplain. When they say security rules that is exactly what that means, security rules. It is inconvenient; necessary but definitely inconvenient. Every staff person who works in a prison steps into the boundaries and confinement of the prison bars themselves daily. It is up to each of us to find our “freedom” within the restrictions of this place.

So how does a person whose job and whose personal beliefs demand life in the gray, work in a place that is so black and white? It is a question Prison Chaplains wrestle with daily.

In the midst of my latest wrestling match, I received some very wise counsel from one of my fellow prison chaplains, Reverend Marchelle Hallman. She advised me to “let go of the fight and let God work in and through each situation.” I was fighting my need to “be the Gospel” as I knew it, from my perspective. She reminded me that these boundaries, these limits that are placed on the women here, are there because they need to be there. All of the things they can no longer do: be a daily part of their children’s lives, be present at funerals, weddings, first days of school, help with rites of passage for family members, all of the little extra things that seem so harmless on the outside can no longer happen for them here, and that’s all a part of being in prison.

Now this may seem like one of those “duh” moments to some but to live this daily, hourly, minute by minute is a real challenge to one’s idea of living the Gospel.

Or so I thought.

My colleague also counseled me with: “It may be that in the suffering caused by our rules, she may gain much more.”

And I think she might be right.

The women’s Challenge Incarceration Program, CIP, is also here at this correctional facility. It’s commonly referred to as Boot Camp. It is a para-military structured program that teaches the women discipline – lots and lots of discipline! And there is where my friend’s words bear witness to the truth.

Over and over again we hear from the CIP women that as hard as the program is it is often the first time they’ve had structure in their lives and, more importantly, it is the first time anyone has believed in them enough to expect of them their very best to the point of pushing and challenging them to find their best. Here they “suffer” that they might “gain more”. It is what we all want for the women here – all of the women whether in Boot Camp or general population – to find their best.

Which brings me back to what I do as Chaplain. But first, let me just say that like most institutions, be it nursing home, hospitals, or prisons, Chaplain staff are spending more and more time behind a computer. Rules and policies increase. Guidelines multiply. I lead the occasional worship service, but we have volunteers who do the bulk of the studies and gathering times. I assist in training and managing volunteers. I set up appointments and facilitate property requests such as bibles, rosaries, etc. I monitor for security at outdoor rituals. I answer Kites and more Kites. (A kite is like a prisoner’s hand written paper email.) But it’s the one-on-one visits that help remind me of the Chaplain/Pastor part – the part I love.

And this is when I breathe and feel contentment in my soul.

When I am Chaplain I am breathing Henri Nouwen’s beautiful words of hospitality. For Nouwen, hospitality was all about providing that sacred space where both people can be present without agenda. I am not here to hurt, change, shame, or deny you in any way. Instead I am here to provide a safe space where you may begin to know something different, something strangely curious, something new – God’s grace and mercy. It is a place of silence if need be. It is a place of acceptance of who you are in this moment. It is a place where your story is your story – one to be carefully opened and read as you want and need. It is my place to receive it with open hands and heart. Sometimes a reflective mirror is necessary but most often the work of a Chaplain is in the listening and the acceptance of tears. We call it “the Ministry of Presence”.

What have I learned from working here? I believe now more than ever in that over used phrase, “it takes a village to raise a child.” I’ve wondered where the villages have failed that we have women in prison who should be home with their families. When did it become okay and seemingly standard behavior to cross sexual boundaries with women and children? When did it become okay to verbally, emotionally and mentally abuse women? What are we encouraging by not fixing the situation of women raising children alone, resorting to selling drugs as a way to support not only their children but often their drug and alcohol using parents and relatives? Why do we avoid naming loud and clear in our churches the death that occurs in a victim’s soul when they are sexually abused especially as a child?  The majority of the women here have been sexually abused as children not once, not twice but many, many times. The majority of the women here live with addiction to cover their deep, deep shame and pain. The majority of the women here have behavior and mental challenges, some were born with these challenges but most are as a result of trauma.

And I have also learned of the power of Love.

Yes. It is said that offenders find Jesus in prisons but leave him at the gate when they leave. And yes, that is true but not always. While they are here their needs are provided for; they are expected to either go to school or work but prison time also allows them to “get it together” so to speak. It allows them time to focus on themselves, to get clean and sober. It gives them a chance to think more clearly. They can begin to figure out who they are and the pain and woundedness that brings them to this place. We hope and pray every day that they will get to that place of being sick and tired – of being sick and tired.

They might “find religion”.  This is a good thing. It can help them in the finding of themselves – who God created them to be. The challenge begins when they leave and have to start providing for this new self. Will they make it? Will they have healthy support? Will they be able to avoid the use of drugs and alcohol again? Will they continue to fall on Jesus as a way to do things differently? I don’t know. I can only hope and pray.

And in the end I am reminded that I need to rest in God. I am here, in this place, right now, to do what God can do through me. It is not mine to control or to determine but to be what I can be and then get out of the way. In this world what a more humble place to be but in the place where I must let go and let God work through me to create a simple but powerful sacred place; where women can bring what they really need to bring – raw, powerful, painful pieces of humanity that, with help, can be offered up and then released.

Reverend Amy Luukkonen is a Chaplain/Religious Coordinator at the Shakopee Women’s Correctional Facility.

June 27, 2018