[Episcopal News Service] On both prison cots and comfy parlor chairs, two communities in the Diocese of Central Pennsylvania are taking a singular journey of reading the entire Bible together over the course of the next year.
The Rev. Jennifer Mattson presented an idea to the leadership of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania: take up the Bible Challenge — an initiative to read the entire Bible over the course of a year, by taking 15 minutes each day to read sections from the Old and New Testaments, a psalm, and a proverb. But Mattson didn’t stop there. She wanted to extend the initiative to the local women’s prison, inviting the inmates to participate in the Bible Challenge alongside the people of St. Thomas.
“This is a congregation truly willing to try new ideas,” said Mattson. “Their commitment to inclusion and love blows me away. Reading Scripture is foundational to discipleship, to having a relationship with God. There is something so profound about being steeped in God’s word. When you do that as a community, I think there’s something transformational that happens.”
In a congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 100, 60 people of all ages joined the Bible Challenge. And the congregation made a commitment to the prison as well, purchasing 30 Bible Challenge books for the women’s spirituality group there.
“These are ladies who have been isolated, rejected, for all sorts of reasons,” said Stacey Catigano, a chaplain at the prison and postulant for the diaconate. Doing the Bible Challenge with the people of St. Thomas “reminds them that community is beyond walls, beyond barbed wire, that God is with them. This practice is a divine thread, connecting them to the larger community.”
The path to this shared journey of engaging Scripture wasn’t straight.
Catigano didn’t plan on ministering in a prison. After a career as an assistant chaplain in the Army, she thought she was called to hospice ministry. But for one reason or another, things weren’t working out, and the needling idea of volunteering at a prison kept resurfacing.
It was difficult at first: hot, lots of angry people, not the type of ministry Catigano thought God was calling her to. That is, until one day, she looked at the prison roster and noticed a bunch of women with the same first name as hers, even spelled the same.
“God converted my heart that day. I had been ‘othering’ the women in the prison, and I realized that I am them and they are me, and we are all children of God,” said Catigano, her voice tight with emotion. “I see beautiful things happening here. God is definitely here.”
Like Catigano, the Rev. Jane Miron had no desire to visit prisons. She lived out her diaconal vocation through food banks, clothing closets and other hands-on ministry. The locked doors of a prison scared her.
But Catigano’s repeated invitation to help with a Bible study in the prison wore down Miron’s resolve, and she made her first visit.
“During that time with the women, something changed for me,” Miron said. “The honesty and realness of the women keeps me balanced and focused. … I can get so caught up with doing ‘God’s work’ and being busy in the church that I forget that we are called to go out into our communities — all of our communities.”
Miron and Mattson alternate leading the women’s spirituality group at the prison, along with Catigano. Perhaps because of the commitment to this ministry by the three women, the people of St. Thomas were very receptive to the idea of taking on the Bible Challenge within the congregation as well as in the prison community.
People have covenanted to pray with and for one another throughout the year, Mattson said. In the congregation, affinity groups are developing: parents with kids under the age of 13, the Wednesday lectionary group. In the prison, participants are engaging the Bible Challenge in a variety of ways, from lectio divina to adventure/comic book Bibles.
“God speaks to people in different ways,” said Catigano. “Overall, what I’ve noticed is that the women know that I am reading the Bible and that the people of St. Thomas are reading it with them. It broadens the sense of community, and that’s very important to the women. For me personally, this process connects me to God and connects me to God’s community in a very profound way.”
The women’s spirituality group and the people of St. Thomas are part of a much bigger community: More than 1 million people have participated in the Bible Challenge since it began in 2011, said the Rev. Marek Zabriskie, founder of the program.
“We’ve experienced enormous spiritual hunger in The Episcopal Church as well as other mainline churches,” said Zabriskie, now rector of Christ Church in Greenwich, Connecticut.
“Members have been eager to engage Scripture and to develop a daily spiritual practice of reading the Bible in a prayerful manner that leads to spiritual growth and transformation.”
Zabriskie said this is the first such prison/congregation partnership for the Bible Challenge, but other creative partnerships have flourished, such as with schools and book clubs.
“It can work wherever there is a willing spirit,” he said.
For Miron, the Bible Challenge is both an opportunity to dive deep into Scripture — and to live out its words.
“Whenever we yoke with other groups that are in a different place or different part of our community, I think there’s something really powerful in that,” Miron said. “It’s so easy to get isolated in our individual parishes — any time you partner with different groups and focus on what we have in common, on God’s word, then it strengthens your spiritual foundation and leads to our collective spiritual growth.”
– Richelle Thompson is deputy director and managing editor of Forward Movement, a ministry of The Episcopal Church committed to inspiring disciples and empowering evangelists.