The theme of this blog is, as you know, women and girls in vulnerable situations–those who are at risk for exploitation and abuse. One of these situations is women re-entering society after being incarcerated in the penal system. They are faced with a host of issues that they need to successfully navigate, and prisoner re-entry and aftercare ministries are an excellent resource to help them do so.
We have the privilege of watching one such ministry being born: COTAAN. Over the next several months, we’ll be posting periodic blog entries about the evolution of COTAAN from the glimmer of an idea to a reality. You will not only learn about aftercare and re-entry ministries, and about COTAAN, but you will learn how to bring a new outreach ministry to fruition. Following COTAAN as it develops, seeing its joys as well as the ways it needs to shift along the path, will help us all gain valuable insights into the birth of a ministry.
The COTAAN blog posts are contributed by Rev. Christine A. Smith, pastor of Covenant Baptist Church in Wickliffe, OH, www.covenantbaptistwickliffe.com.
The Evolution of COTAAN: Covenant Outreach Through Advocacy and Agency Networking
(Pronounced “Cotton” – A “soft” landing for those coming from a “hard” start)
To say that I had, or have, a burning desire for prison ministry would not be honest. The fact of the matter is that I have learned that “ministry” does not always flow forth from a lightning bolt experience or an overwhelming feeling of “I’ve got to do this!” Rather, it sometimes comes from an openness to the voice of God through circumstances, situations, and observations. COTAAN is evolving from just such a place.
Some years ago as an associate minister at my home church, I participated in the prison ministry at the Women’s Pre-release Center in Cleveland, Ohio. Our visits included a prayer and praise service, a sermon, and distributing personal hygiene items as permitted by the system. On one of those occasions, as the sermon was ending, the minister offered an altar call prayer. Following the prayer, several of the women were sobbing. Quite presumptuously, I assumed that their tears were because of their incarceration. However, their cries were not due to imprisonment but, to my surprise, something altogether different. One by one, those who were crying came forward and said, “Please pray for us. We are going to be released soon and we don’t know what we are going to do.”
The minister in charge instructed us to pull back from the women since the guards were ready to escort them back to their quarters. We had no time or opportunity to address their fears. Even if we had, I didn’t know what to say. That image has remained with me.
Fast forward…. In 2008, while attending the American Baptist Churches USA “Speak Until Justice Wakes” conference held at Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California, I was deeply moved by the life work and ministry of the Reverend Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr., then pastor of Allen Temple. I learned of his after-care ministry to ex-felons. Several of the ex-felons who had been involved in the ministry openly shared with my husband and I how Dr. Smith and the Allen Temple congregation touched their lives and the lives of many others. They spoke of how the church helped them by giving them a chance, praying with them, visiting them while they were still in prison, and working with the prison system and local employers to give them job opportunities after completion of the church sponsored re-entry programs. The church welcomed them in, trained them for positions of Christian service, and showed them the love of Jesus Christ in tangible ways.
In 2010, Rev. Fela Barrueto, national coordinator for Prisoner Re-entry and Aftercare Ministry at American Baptist Home Mission Societies (ABHMS), came to Cleveland to work with the Cleveland Baptist Association to launch our first regional prison re-entry resource guide. As president of the CBA’s board of trustees, I was an ex-officio member of the planning team. It seemed that the Lord kept placing the ministry of re-entry before me.
Several members of my local congregation have family members who are incarcerated and about to be released, or who have recently gone through that experience. Each family shared some of the same concerns: “What is going to happen to my loved one when they come home? How will we make the adjustment? How will they survive? Where will they find work?”
In these questions, I heard the Lord asking, “Who will go for us? Who shall we send?” (Isaiah 6:8) I began to prayerfully consider how our congregation could get involved. I believed God was calling Covenant to answer, “Here we are, Lord! Send us!”
(Stay tuned for more on this story!)
COTAAN is a grant project of AB Women’s Ministries. For more information about COTAAN , including how you could help support this ministry, click here.