The best gifts keep on giving, and that’s what is happening with the Christmas Cards for Inmates Project, a growing initiative of the Eastern PA Conference Prison Ministry & Restorative Justice (PMRJ) Team.
In 2016 team members delivered over 8,000 signed Christmas cards to inmates in 10 correctional facilities in Eastern PA. That was many more cards and several more institutions than in 2015. Again, each card bore a brief, caring, even encouraging handwritten note penned by a volunteer to offer its unknown recipient some Christmas love.
Numerous people in churches and communities are eager to participate in such a simple kindness and valuable ministry to cheer up inmates who are lonely and locked away from family and loved ones. It is a perfect way to remember the true reason for the Christmas season.
That interest has only grown, as the team invites more willing individuals, groups and churches to download and print prepared and vetted cards, add greetings with signatures and deliver them by Nov. 6 to their district or conference offices to be screened, sorted, bundled and taken to participating correctional institutions.
PMRJ team member Brenda Del Rosario, a member of C.C. Hancock UMC in Springfield, printed 80 of the cards, purchased envelopes and took them to the public school where she works. “I was folding them in the teacher’s lounge during my lunch break,” she recalls. “Within 35 minutes I had 47 cards signed by teachers and support staff! All I did was answer a question about what I was doing, and suddenly the word spread.
“At first, I thought I was going to be in trouble for doing something church-related on school property,” she continued. “But the opposite happened. There was a flow of those who knew of people who were in prison, and some expressed the coldness and isolation of that environment. I was thanked for doing this mission, but I couldn’t take credit. There’s an entire team and dedicated church members making sure God’s love is spread to all individuals.”
When Del Rosario later attended a dinner gathering, she had more cards in her purse. “We prayed before eating and were asked to share something we were grateful for. I shared this story, and before the dinner was completed, another 22 cards were signed. God’s spirit moves faster than I can keep up!”
“While we start with our congregants,” said the Rev. Marilyn Schneider, who leads the conference prison ministry team and its Christmas card project, “we ask and hope that the cards will get out into the community to allow others to participate in this ministry as well.”
“The path to prison ministry may be paved with Christmas cards,” says team member Linda McCrea, a member of West Lawn UMC in Reading. She spoke recently at Mount Carmel UMC in Elverson. The small congregation of mostly older adults already knew about the Christmas Cards for Inmates project because they participated last year. They wanted to know more about how they could be involved in prison ministry outside the prison.
“I gave them multiple choices,” said McCrea, “such as purchasing bibles, working with Berks (County) Connections and Pre-Trial Services, offering (ex-inmates) help with job resumes, volunteering at halfway houses, and so on. When we are reaching out in faith and love to help inmates in any capacity, it is all prison ministry.”
McCrea, who has long been involved in prison ministry on the inside and outside, recalls being approached by a young man at a halfway house’s celebratory banquet. “He had been in my Bible study in jail. He said he was so grateful for that Wednesday study time and that it is making a difference in his life.”
It’s a comment she often hears when she meets and gets to hug grateful former inmates at job fairs and other events. “God is working in these people’s lives,” she said. “Their hearts are opening up to see a better way to live. I pray that Christmas Cards for Inmates goes all over this nation, spreading love and peace and encouraging people to do more.”
Her prayer is already being answered in the South Carolina Conference, where the Rev. Narcie Jeter learned about our conference’s ministry last year through reporting by UM News Service and a video produced by UM Communications. She tried the same project in her church, Point Hope UMC in Mount Pleasant, S.C., hoping the effort will lead members to get more involved direct ministry at a nearby prison.
Jeter printed the same cards provided online by our conference prison ministry team and encouraged her church members to sign them while sitting in their pews. The church provided stamps and sent about 90 cards to the nearby prison. “The congregation gladly went for it,” she said, adding that they will be doing the activity again this year for Christmas.
“I think we’re called as Christians to share God’s love in the world,” Jeter said. “There’s no place darker at Christmas than a prison, and that’s what my congregation responded to.”
She shared the ministry with South Carolina’s United Methodist Women at their summer Mission u event and with her conference’s Connectional Ministries leaders, too. “It’s faith in action, faith lived out,” Jeter said. Read the full story.
Learn more about this popular ministry in our conference, including information and instructions and materials for participating. Please note that all cards must be completed and returned to district or conference offices by Monday, November 6.
Also view the UMCom video about this ministry produced last year: