By Rev. Amelia Boomershine
Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. One time he asked a rhetorical question: What is the kingdom of God like?
He answered with the parable of the mustard seed. So we named our emerging ministry project “Seeds of Grace.” The Seeds of Grace team leads a weekly Circle of the Word program called “Sacred Stories” for women at the Montgomery County (Ohio) Jail in downtown Dayton. In these Circles I experience the kingdom of God when stories of a deeply personal nature are shared in the safe place that our Sacred Stories Circle becomes as we creatively engage biblical stories.
We had a full room for our first Circle of this past summer: three of us from Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton) and eleven from the jail. The two suggestions for connecting to the story of “Hagar Conceives a Son” (Gen. 16:1-6) were invitations to tell about “someone you know who couldn’t have a baby, or a time you were treated with contempt.” I started with a story about a friend who couldn’t have a baby. Then all but one of the others chose to speak on that connection. Every situation described was unique, including recognition that sometimes the issue is with the man and a story to illustrate. The woman who chose the contempt theme shared an experience much like that of Sarah and Hagar. Some of the stories were sad; some had happy endings; all were poignant.
In these times of sharing I sometimes feel like Jesus reaching out to touch a leper, getting in touch with deep sorrow, pain, shame.
But I am not Jesus, and initially was not sure I could shoulder the burden of these troubles in a helpful and healthy way. As Gregory Boyle asks in his book on ministry with gangbangers in L.A., “How do those who ‘sit in darkness’ find the light? How does one hang in there with folks, patiently taking from the wreck of a lifetime of internalized shame, a sense that God finds them (us) wholly acceptable?” I’m convinced that internalizing certain stories from the Bible in a creative, safe atmosphere is one approach to answering these questions.
Another approach developed as I considered how church members might participate in the Seeds of Grace project besides those who join me as Circlekeepers in the jail. Out of this came the prayer card activity. At the close of each Circle the women are invited to write prayer requests or just their names on an index card, if they would like Grace’s Monday morning prayer group to pray for them. Most accept the invitation and write with sincerity and concentration. Sometimes they write their own prayers or express gratitude for the prayer group. Occasionally a request will be dictated to a Circlekeeper if writing is too much of a challenge.
After reading and praying with the cards myself, I pass them on to the Grace prayer group. On Monday morning prayer group participants begin their hour of prayer by reading aloud each prayer card. They conclude the reading of each card with, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The person who reads the card will take it home and pray over it daily during the week. The prayer group has been doing this ministry for over a year—every week Sacred Stories Circle is held. It is a boundary-crossing spiritual experience for members of the prayer group, as well as for those of us physically going into the jail. Several Circlekeepers are also in the prayer group.
Grace’s senior pastor, Rev. Sherry L. Gale, is a member of the prayer group and has observed how the cards have impacted it: “Through the prayer ministry for the women, our Grace prayer group has connected with a world outside themselves. This connection has brought a growth in the prayer group participants’ understanding and experience of God’s love and God’s people.” For myself, I have learned as never before the importance of local church spiritual practice. I am grateful to have been shown a way to mobilize that practice in response to the needs of women in the jail.
Rev. Amelia Cooper Boomershine is appointed to GoTell Communications, Inc., and Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton, Ohio). Seeds of Grace received an Emerging Ministries grant through the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for projects developed by deacons. Visit Circle of the Word to follow the Sacred Stories jail ministry and to learn how to start one in your community.