The Rev. Cris Mogenson’s parishioners in the Town of Dickinson can’t leave the premises but are still in need of spiritual guidance, nurturing and support.
“I try to connect people to the Lord,” Mogenson said.
Mogenson serves as the coordinating chaplain for jail ministry at the Broome County Jail in Dickinson, which is run through the Broome County Council of Churches. He, along with deacons Dorothy Pierce and Adeolu Ademoyo, minister to inmates at the jail. They serve all faiths.
“It’s not our job to proselytize,” Mogenson said.
When the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic struck last year, the team had to make some changes to their ministry. All group activities and services were suspended due to the virus, including programs and classes for parenting, literacy and recovery. But they can still visit inmates face-to-face while wearing masks, and conduct discharge planning and re-entry programs to help inmates transition back to life outside the facility.
“We want them to experience healing and to get back to their lives,” said Pierce, an Episcopalian deacon. “It’s what we say in church: to get back to where God wants them to be.”
They’ve had to come up with some creative ways to minister to inmates while keeping them safe during the pandemic. During Ash Wednesday, they visited all the jail’s housing units and used Q-Tips to give them ashes, said Ademoyo, a deacon for the Roman Catholic Syracuse Diocese.
Another way the pandemic affected the ministry was the temporary suspension of the approximately 70 volunteers who help in the ministry, Mogenson said. While it wasn’t safe for volunteers to work in the jail, many found remote ways to help, such as writing devotionals and letters that were passed out to inmates, and collecting Bibles and other religious materials for inmates.
While the program has changed due to the pandemic, the changes helped strengthen the program, the three chaplains said.
“It has given us the opportunity to be even more present in many ways to the individuals and their families,” Pierce said. The chaplains have helped inmates stay connected to their families on the outside through projects such as letter-writing.
Holding more one-on-one meetings allows the chaplains to get to know the inmates better, Ademoyo said.
“It has become more relational,” he said. “It led to a more interpersonal relationship with the inmates.”
Building those relationships is one reason why the three chaplains look forward to working in the jail instead of going to a church office.
“I enjoy chaplaincy because it’s real ministry,” Mogenson said. “I don’t have to worry about buildings or church kitchens or lawns. I deal with people.”
Ademoyo said Roman Catholic deacons are “ordained down” so they can focus on serving others.
“We always have to be down there with the people of God,” he said.
All the hard work is worth it when the chaplains meet former inmates on the street or in places like grocery stores. Many former inmates stop to say thank you, the chaplains said.
“We consider this a gift to be able to do this ministry,” Pierce said. “It really is a blessing to be part of other people’s lives and their transformations.”
For more information
To learn more about the Broome County Council of Churches’ Jail Ministry, go online to https://broomecouncil.net/jail-ministry/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org