“I really want this congregation to shrink!” says Eric Wangen-Hoch, pastor of Living Stones Lutheran Church, in Shelton, Wash.
Pastor Eric may appreciate the laugh his unexpected comment usually brings, but he really isn’t trying to be funny. He’s trying to make a point.
Housed at the Shelton Washington Correction Center, Living Stones is one of nine ELCA congregations serving the fastest growing population in the United States: the incarcerated.
Of course, Eric wants to nurture the faith and the commitment to Jesus Christ of his parishioners — while they’re there.
He would prefer that he didn’t have to reach them while they’re serving time.
But this is the work he’s called to do. And he’s struck, again and again, by how the Holy Spirit is revealed in these most unexpected of circumstances.
“He never thought he’d feel welcomed at church”
Pastor Eric recalls a softball game between a congregation in the Southwestern Washington Synod and the best of the in-house prison teams. He went to watch the game dressed casually, as he often is, without his collar.
He struck up a conversation with one man on the in-house team, who eventually asked Eric what he did at the prison. The man was quite taken aback by the answer.
“He looked at me funny and said he had never talked to a pastor before and that I did not look like a pastor,” says Eric. He told him that the Lutheran congregation worshipped at the chapel every Saturday night and invited him to come and check it out.
A few weeks later, the man showed up at service and has been a regular attendee ever since. Eric observes, “He feels welcomed at a church, and he never thought he would.”
Another man sought out the pastor wanting to be “re-baptized,” Eric recalls. “He believed because of his crimes and sins that his baptism was invalid. He had to have it redone. [I still can see the] look of shock, realization, and then relief when I told him I would not re-baptize because God does not back down from God’s promises even when we fail on ours.”
Eric offered him an option: not a “do-over,” but a re-affirmation.
“I invited him to walk back to the promises God made to him so many years ago. During worship as I taught and explained what we were doing, we opened the [ceremony] up and 20 guys came forward.”
This celebration of God’s enduring commitment, sealed permanently in baptism, is now a regular event at worship at Living Stones.
A Partnership with mutual benefits
Eric also wants to grow the involvement of local ELCA congregations through volunteer re-entry teams, who help prepare prisoners and their families at least two years in advance of the prisoners’ release.
There’s a mutual benefit, Eric believes.
“[ELCA members] who participate feel like it is something that they can ‘really feel good about.’ Prisoners are seeking God, and they need someone to listen non-judgmentally, to love them, and, sometimes, to agree to disagree.”
It’s an opportunity for these men to see, as Eric says, that “God provides; we have only to open our eyes.”
There’s also an opportunity for the volunteers, Eric believes, who are often challenged to re-think their views about the U.S. criminal justice system.
“We as a society keep sending men and women to prison; we practice retributive justice very well,” he observes.
“But what about restorative justice? How do we make things right? How do we empower men and women who are incarcerated to make right, or as right as possible, on charges? How do we as society change our lives to reduce violence and abuse in our communities?”