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XOC makes disciples among ex-offenders

Amanda Hipple leads an XOC (Ex-Offenders Church) service at Ross Street United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pa. UMNS photos courtesy of Amanda Hipple.

By Suzy Keenan*
June 8, 2007 | LANCASTER, Pa. (UMNS)



"I was in prison and you visited me," Jesus said in Matthew 25:36.

But what happens when a prisoner is released back into the community?
"Ex-offenders often feel forgotten, neglected or just plain not wanted in our communities, and even in some of our churches," said Amanda Hipple, founder of XOC, which stands for Ex-Offenders Church. 

Women from the Gates House transitional home in Lititz, Pa., are among those who take part in the ministry.

XOC began in 2004 at Ross Street United Methodist Church, where Hipple is a member and where ex-offenders now come together once a week to worship and learn about God and to share and support each other. It is part of the ministry of LUMINA, a project of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries in the denomination's Eastern Pennsylvania (regional) Conference.

Hipple, 37, had been involved with prison ministry at Lancaster County Prison for about 10 years before she began XOC. She started by playing volleyball with female inmates and then began visiting them one-on-one in prison. She also became involved with monthly church services for women inmates.

"In talking with these ladies and learning more about their needs, I heard over and over that the reason they don't go to church after they are released is because they don't feel comfortable at a traditional service. Self-esteem issues, guilt and fear of being rejected or judged keeps them from even stepping foot in a church," she said.

At the same time, prisoners and ex-offenders are hungry for spiritual food and in desperate need of hearing on a regular basis the Good News of God's love and grace.

"I feel that God gave me a vision of how to reach these ex-offenders and break the destructive merry-go-round that they are on," Hipple said. "They find God in jail, get out of jail, have no church family to turn to and end up in jail again. This pattern needed to be addressed and dealt with."
XOC was begun to fill this need. It offers a worship experience that is casual in dress and open to everyone, including non-offenders. Services are held on Friday nights, which is a hard night for people with addiction issues.

Support ministry

Jeanetta Zerbe is among those who have benefited. Now 26, she was living at the Water Street Rescue Mission and had just given birth to a son when Hipple visited with her. She was struggling with addiction and an abusive relationship with the baby's father and began attending XOC. "I could not ask for better friends," said Zerbe. "XOC is always there to answer my questions, and help me along the way of my religion."

At XOC, people can hear the Word of God and experience what real Christian fellowship is all about. Its mission is "to provide a nurturing and creative worship experience based on the Word of God, with love and forgiveness for all."

"In this world of so much heartache, so many sad stories, and so many hurting people, we have touched the lives of people who often feel that God's love isn't meant for them, and use them for His kingdom
-Amanda Hipple

"It's now been three years since XOC began, and it's truly amazing how God is moving and working through all who attend," said Mary Scruton, who accepted Christ as her savior in 2003 after her third arrest  - this one related to a robbery to support her drug addiction.

"We experience something new every week through prayer, praise and worship. There are guest speakers, musical groups, field trips, individual testimonies and much more."

XOC volunteers provide van service to four transitional homes in Lancaster, Lititz and Leola. Worship attendance varies from five to 25 each week.

"In this world of so much heartache, so many sad stories, and so many hurting people, we have touched the lives of people who often feel that God's love isn't meant for them, and use them for His kingdom," Hipple said.


Amanda Hipple (center) began the church service to help ex-offenders including men from the Transition To Community transitional housing in Lancaster.

Hipple's heart for the prison ministry stems from her own struggles with alcohol addiction and also a heart condition that almost killed her before her 30th birthday. "I never had to go to prison, but I was definitely headed down that road," she recalled. "But when death stares you in the face, you really get real with God."


Her journey of faith convinced her that God was calling her to help those in prison and those transitioning to freedom - many of whom struggle with addiction.

"I've walked a lot of what they've walked. Maybe not exactly - but enough to understand their issues," she said.

XOC provides Life Application Study Bibles to Lancaster County Prison as well as the Life Recovery Bible, which incorporates the 12 steps from Alcoholics Anonymous. Inmates earn the Bibles by memorizing Bible verses, and more than 200 Bibles have been given away at XOC and in prison. The ministry also provides a prisoners devotional book, which the inmates can earn by memorizing more Bible verses.

For more information, contact the Rev. Sally Wisner Ott, Church and Community Worker, LUMINA, 133 Pearl Street, Lancaster, PA  17603; 717-394-8412, or visit www.luminaoutreach.org.

*Keenan is director of communications for The Eastern Pennsylvania Conference of The United Methodist Church.

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