|Criminal justice system broken, says volunteer chaplain
The Rev. Madeline McDonald
Oct. 19, 2006
|The Rev. Madeline McDonald|
A UMNS Report
By Tom McAnally*
When the Rev. Madeline McDonald speaks to groups on the need for
Christians to be concerned about the growing U.S. prison population, she
pulls out a crisp $20 bill and asks who would like to have it.
Predictably, all hands go up. Then the volunteer prison chaplain
crumples the bill and asks the same question. All hands go up again. She
unfolds the bill, stains it with a dirty solution, crumples it again
and asks the question a third time.
"Everybody continues to raise their hands," she says. "Do you know
why? Because it has never lost its intrinsic value." Then the retired
United Methodist clergywoman drives home her point: "Nobody ever loses
his intrinsic value in the eyes of God." She quotes Hebrews 13:3:
"Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with
them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being
Although she felt called to full-time Christian ministry early in her
life, she was ordained at age 49 after a teaching career and after she
and her husband, Russell, reared four children.
McDonald spent nine years getting her seminary degree at Union
Theological Seminary in New York and served 14 years in three
appointments in the New York Annual (regional) Conference. "I loved
every minute of it," she exclaims.
After retiring in 1991 at age 62, she moved to Whitesboro, N.Y.,
where she has served as a resource leader for the Mohawk District and
several interim pastorates in the North Central New York Conference.
Begins prison ministry
After moving to northern New York she became more aware of the prison
industry, which replaced some of the declining economy there. "I made
friends with a Presbyterian clergyman who asked me to help with some
kind of ministry. I declined that invitation, but told him I had heard
he did chaplaincy work at a nearby prison and asked if I might do it
She had no direct experience, other than visiting local jails during
her ministry, but she quickly found herself at home in this new
volunteer ministry. She had, while still in the New York Annual
Conference, become aware of the concept of "restorative justice" through
the Conference Board of Church and Society. The United Methodist
Church's Social Principles has a four-paragraph section on "Criminal and
"Most criminal justice systems profess to hold the offender
accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for
accountability," the principles state. "In contrast, restorative justice
seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to
the disrupted community.
"Through God's transforming power, restorative justice seeks to
repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved,
including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The
Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by
becoming an agent of healing and systemic change," says the Social
McDonald's concern for social justice, particularly restorative
justice, is consistent with her conviction that "the gospel calls us not
only to be concerned about our personal lives, but our social lives as
well. That's in line with what John Wesley taught, and it's in line with
what the gospel calls us to do as persons of justice and compassion."
She quotes Wesley: "Personal holiness must show forth in social
Seeks changes in laws
Even though she has been slowed by health issues in recent years,
McDonald continues to work to change state laws, particularly those
demanding harsh penalties for drug offenses. "Our Rockefeller drug laws
are typical of drug laws throughout the country that are in great need
of change," she says. "They are seriously flawed. All sociologists and
criminologists agree that they do nothing to remedy our drug situation.
They have become almost a systematic national movement of incarcerating
mostly African Americans. Instead of offering rehabilitation they have
created one of the most enormous social problems of our time."
Through her volunteer efforts, she has become close friends with
David Kaczynski, brother of convicted Unabomber Theodore Kacyznski, who
is serving a life sentence for killing three people and wounding 23.
David is now executive director of the New Yorkers against the Death
"David is an incredible man," says McDonald. "A Buddhist, he is truly
a man of God." The North Central New York Annual Conference arranged
for him to speak to an Oct. 2 rally on "The Death Penalty: Up Close and
Personal" in Syracuse, N.Y. McDonald arranged for Kacyznski to speak at
an Oct. 28 workshop on "Restorative Justice … and Beyond" to be held at
the Fayetteville (N.Y) United Methodist Church. Other workshop speakers
will address the Rockefeller laws, prison families of New York, and
volunteering behind bars.
"I once read that Mother Teresa considered her ministry to be among
the lowest of the low in society by caring for those poor, dying people
in the streets of Calcutta and elsewhere, but I would like to meet
Mother Teresa someday and tell her I disagree," McDonald says. "The
lowest of the low in this nation are those who are not the poor lying in
the gutters but those who are incarcerated behind bars."
Not interested in religion
When volunteering at the Walsh Regional Medical Center at the New
York State Maximum Security Facility in Rome, N.Y., McDonald always
wears a clerical collar so individuals will recognize her as a
clergywoman. On one occasion she recalls knocking on a door and asking
if she could come in. An inmate looked up from his bed where he was
working a crossword puzzle. "I'm not interested in religion, sister," he
said. "Well, how about some conversation?" McDonald asked. He agreed
and soon learned that she had lived much of her life in New York City,
where he had lived. "Because of that connection we had a wonderful
visit," she recalls. "Before I left he asked me to pray."
McDonald says she never approaches inmates with questions of faith.
"I approach each person from their own need. I can't put a finger on it,
but I have been at home and comfortable with every inmate I've met. It
is another dimension of my ministry which I find tremendously
Just lead me, Lord
Realizing she cannot visit a large number of inmates on any one day,
McDonald approaches the prison with a prayer: "Just lead me, Lord, where
I need to go." After silently uttering that prayer she spotted a man
slumped in a wheelchair. She put her hand on his shoulder. "We haven't
met, have we?" she asked. He pulled away. She introduced herself and
asked where he was from. He muttered some town on Long Island. "Oh,
Smithtown," she replied, "That's near where I raised my children." That
opened the door for a conversation during which he told of going to a
library in Smithtown with his grandfather. "You're a reader, are you?"
she asked. "I can't read," he sobbed. "I'm blind."
The next week McDonald and her Presbyterian colleague arranged for
the inmate to start receiving talking books and other materials for the
blind. "When we last saw him five months before he died he was sitting
as happy as a person could be with all kinds of tapes, including one on a
book of the Psalms," she says.
At another time, she was visiting a terminally ill man who was to be
released from prison in a few months. After a long conversation,
McDonald asked him, "What is the dearest prayer of your heart?"
"To see my children again," he quickly responded. "We laid hands on
him and prayed, and at his request, I anointed him." The inmate got well
enough to do some beautiful art work and sent it to his family that had
not been in contact with him for years. As a result, one daughter came
to visit from many miles away and, after his release, took him to her
home where he died several months later."
"Every story is a different one," she comments. "It is ministry
according to the leading of the Holy Spirit in practical ways but in
ways that continue to make me aware that our criminal justice system
needs fixing. It is broken."
*McAnally, retired director of United Methodist New Service, lives in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or email@example.com
Death penalty continues despite church's 50-year opposition
Death penalty is personal for brothers
Jesus was executed by the state, activist reminds Christians
Mentally ill inmates continue to be executed
Close Up: The death penalty - what would Jesus do?
Criminal and Restorative Justice
United Methodists Against the Death Penalty
Death Penalty Information Center