Christmas card outreach to inmates grows

More prison locations sought

BY JOHN W. COLEMAN

The Eastern PA Conference’s Christmas Cards to Inmates Project scored another record-breaking year in December 2017. Nearly 9,500 Christmas cards were, in the words of a popular song, “signed, sealed, delivered,” mostly to recipients in 11 of our region’s county and state correctional facilities.

That total exceeds the roughly 8,000 signed cards collected in 2016. And with some prison populations in decline since last year, some cards were shared with facility guards and staff.

The Conference’s Prison Ministries & Restorative Justice (PMRJ) Team finds more supporters of this three-year-old holiday cheer effort each year—more people willing to pen a few caring words and sign their names to simple, photocopied greeting cards. The carefully designed and vetted cards, bearing modest but meaningful messages of Christmas hope and joy, help many inmates experience two emotions they may rarely feel living in a penal institution: grace and gratitude.

“There’s value in reaching out to share God’s love with anyone impacted by the criminal justice system,” said the Rev. Marilyn Schneider, the team’s leader. “We’re doing what Christ calls us to do.”

Scott Johnson (left) talks with Marilyn Schneider, as PMRJ team members work on vetting cards for for delivery to prison inmates.   John Coleman photos

Cards went to correctional facilities in Montgomery, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lehigh and Berks counties, plus the Berks County Residential Center (where immigrant families seeking asylum are detained) and the Norristown State Hospital Forensic Center. Also receiving cards were juveniles at the Chester County Youth Center and in a Philadelphia court-supervised youth arts program.

Team member Brenda Del Rosario, of C.C. Hancock UMC in Springfield, gave 102 cards to youth she teaches in the arts program—up from 75 in 2016. “The teens accept the cards but act like they don’t like them,” she reported. “However, I see them open and shut them several times, reading the written messages inside. One teen last year asked me if Christmas cards would be given out again this year. These cards are touching their hearts and souls, I can tell.”

Linda McCrea (left) and Brenda Del Rosario vet signed Christmas cards to ensure they are suitable for delivery to prison inmates.

Linda McCrea delivered over 1,200 cards to the Berks County Jail and 100 cards to the immigrant families in the Residential Center on behalf of her church, West Lawn UMC. Each year she gets hundreds of members, visitors and friends, including many who attend the church’s mid-week community dinner, to sign Christmas cards for inmates. But she also offers them insights into the challenges inmates face, both inside penal institutions and when they reenter society.

“A lot of community people gladly sign the cards,” she reported. “But along with asking, we need to be educating. I recently talked with a released inmate who said that anything we are doing for inmates is greatly appreciated by most.  He came to our church to thank us for all we did for him while he was incarcerated. God continually shows us that serving in the prisons matters.  God leads, I follow.”

The essential contact—gatekeeper, really—in each facility is the chaplain, who generously accepts the responsibility to receive, screen and disseminate the cards to inmates. Having good relationships with cooperative chaplains is necessary for the cards to be welcomed.

After leading worship one morning at the Norristown State Hospital, Bishop Peggy Johnson joined the Rev. Robert Crane, a chaplain and local pastor in our conference, in walking the halls of five forensic units to give out Christmas cards and chocolate bars to incarcerated patients there.

“One patient opened his card and read the sweetest message about peace that passes all understanding,” recalled the bishop in an e-mail message to Schneider. “It was signed by someone named Daisy. The patient said, ‘Tell Daisy I appreciate this card so much.’  His face glowed with gratitude. This program makes a difference.”

Schneider, a deacon serving at Grove UMC in West Chester, is eager to convince more penal institutions across the region, especially larger ones, to accept the cards in the future, so that the grace and gratitude that comes with Christmas greetings may abound. She has contacted another UM chaplain, the Rev. Donald Moore, at Northampton County Prison. And she would like the project to gain access to facilities in Bucks County, Philadelphia and other locations.

The key is knowing someone who has a good relationship with an institution’s prison chaplain or warden and who can help PMRJ team members present the Christmas card ministry there and gain acceptance. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the effort to Schneider.

“Every inmate and every signed card is important” she said. “More of us need to step outside our comfort zones and do what our faith calls us to do: ‘Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.’” (Hebrews 13:3)

“Every time someone writes a kind card greeting to an unknown inmate,” said Schneider, “they’re thinking of that inmate as a person. That is important, and we are thankful to everyone who signed a card or supported this effort in any way.”

Read previous stories about this ministry on our website, including how other conferences have easily replicated it after learning about its impact and success. Also, view a short, 2016 video about the Christmas Cards to Inmates Project, produced by United Methodist Communications: Church Christmas Cards Show Care to Prisoners.