“Thanks to all of you who shared God’s love with inmates through a signed Christmas card this year,” writes Marilyn Schneider, leader of the conference Prison & Restorative Justice Ministries Team. “To those who are incarcerated, this is a powerful message of caring. At a time when many feel very much alone, it is a reminder that they are a beloved child of God. May this ministry continue to grow and touch hearts behind prison walls.”
Schneider, a candidate for Deacon, extends her small team’s gratitude to the many people across the conference who shared the spirit of Christmas with some folks who really need it. All those who penned personal greetings to prison inmates helped the team to deliver more than 8,000 cards to 10 correctional facilities in Eastern PA. That’s 3,000 more cards than they delivered in 2015.
That feat is so impressive that it drew the interest of United Methodist Communications, which sent a production team here in early November to video record interviews and scenes of the prison ministries team sorting through signed cards. UMCom produced a four-minute video about the popular outreach ministry, titled “Church Christmas Cards Show Care to Prisoners.” It can be viewed and downloaded on the denomination’s website and YouTube channel.
“Who would have thought God would use this simple gesture to encourage someone unknown in such a mighty way,” wrote team member Linda Van Til, a Certified Lay Minister from Lancaster in a report to the Southwest District. “We say, when it comes to Prison and Restorative Justice Ministries, ‘Everybody really can do something.’”
She recalls the Christmas project’s start in November 2014 at Hopewell UMC’s annual Planting Seeds for Ministry event. They collected over 500 signed cards that year. “In 2015 we decided to invite all churches in the conference to participate,” she said. “We were able to collect over 5,000 cards to distribute to Lancaster, Berks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery county prisons and to Curran-Fromhold in Philadelphia. Some facilities received enough cards for all inmates that year. Our team was overjoyed at the expression of love shown, which encouraged us to continue in 2016.”
Not all the 8,030 cards collected this year came from UM churches, as several Lutheran and Episcopal churches joined in also. Additional receiving institutions included the Lehigh County Prison, the Federal Immigrant Family Detention Center in Berks County, SCI Graterford State Prison and the Artworks Program for Juvenile Offenders.
Van Til recalls a letter written by a former inmate who described what receiving such a small gesture of love meant to her. “‘At Bible study one day the chaplain handed each of us a personalized card,’ she wrote. ‘My card said, “To an unknown friend, Joy to the World, the Lord is come!” It has been years since I received that card, but I still get it out to read each year, to remind me (that) someone who didn’t know me cared enough to send me a card of encouragement.’”
In the video, the Rev. Patrick Welch, pastor of Friendship UMC, says, “Sometimes it’s the only piece of mail that they get for years and years because their families disown them. That’s what we’re trying to do. Make sure they know they’re loved.”
Scott Johnson, of Royersford UMC, adds, “In Matthew 25, Jesus calls us to visit those who are in prison but not everyone is ready to go inside. This is a way for people to go inside in a virtual way and touch people’s hearts.”
And Linda McCrae, of West Lawn UMC, recalls talking to one member of her church who quietly shared her own gratitude: “‘I’m so glad you’re doing this,’” she said. “’My son is in prison in another state, and I wish someone was doing this for him.’”
“We have many families in our congregations affected by the prison system,” Van Til explained in her report. “People have told us they wish their relatives who are currently serving time could receive a word of encouragement from someone. Hopefully, that will become a reality someday as God continues to multiple this fruit.”
Indeed, the fruit may soon be multiplied beyond our conference, as the New York Annual Conference was also inspired by news of this ministry. A conference leader contacted Schneider in October seeking permission to replicate the project, as well as the variety of online, downloadable Christmas cards.
“We saw a description of your Christmas Cards for Prisoners project in the UMNS (UM News Service) newsletter, and were so impressed!” wrote Sheila Peiffer, Coordinator of Social Justice Organizing, Engagement and Advocacy for the conference. “I hope you are a believer in the expression that imitation is the best form of flattery, because we would like to use this idea in our conference. We plan to try to get something off the ground this year in a small way and then be ready for a much broader effort next year.”
Anyone interested in learning more or serving on the conference Prison and Restorative Justice Ministries Team can contact Marilyn Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org or Linda Van Til at email@example.com.