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Criminal Justice Summit aims to address prison ministry needs

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A UMNS photo by John Gordon

A summit is planned to create awareness about the need for increased United Methodist participation in prison ministry.

Aug. 23, 2005

A UMNS Feature
By Vicki Brown*

Paul Dame lived and worked with prison inmates for more than two decades, carrying a gun and enforcing discipline as a correctional officer, then rising to the rank of captain and a job in prison administration.

When he ventures behind bars again, Dame wants to bring hope.

“I can’t say the aim is so much to change the prison system as it is to reach out to those individuals who find themselves caught up in it,” Dame said of his plan to become a prison chaplain.

“I found myself with a cynical attitude toward people and prisoners,” he said, recalling his years as a correctional officer, mostly in the Washington D.C. area.

Dame, now a student at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, will be among seminary students, chaplains, and members of local congregations gathering Sept. 16-18 in Atlanta at a Criminal Justice Summit sponsored by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

“It’s my hope personally that I can make the connections with individuals and programs that will allow me to get involved now,” Dame said.

The Rev. Patricia Barrett, an assistant general secretary in the board’s Division of Ordained Ministry, said making such connections is one aim of the summit. Another is to get a handle on what’s being done in prison ministry and who is doing it.

“It’s a mustard-seed summit,” she said. The idea is to get people together and see if there are local ministries that can be supported by chaplains or vice versa. “We hope to build more effective partnerships.”

Barrett and others involved in the summit also want to create awareness about the need for increased United Methodist participation in prison ministry and develop creative ways to increase local church and community involvement in such ministries. With the need for prison chaplains growing, they hope to start a dialogue among seminaries and theological schools, community leaders, and prison chaplains about equipping people for ministry inside the criminal justice system.

James M. Shopshire, professor of sociology and urban religion at Wesley, said one of his goals for the summit is to get a clearer focus and set a renewed direction for recruitment and theological education of students for prison ministry.

“We hope to recover the Wesleyan vision for social holiness regarding prisons, to promote critically relevant transformation and reformation ministries, and to strengthen seminaries as vital resources for justice ministry inside and outside of prisons,” Shopshire said.

In addition, he said those involved in the summit hope to provide leadership in forming ministries that can address injustices to the poor and can participate constructively in changing the shortcomings of the criminal justice system.

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Paul Dame

Shopshire said Dame is unusual in that he’s already made up his mind to enter prison ministry.

Although Dame feels a strong call toward prison ministry, he has mixed emotions.

“I’m not so sure that I’m well qualified to be doing prison ministry, but I do have the experience of being in the prison system. Being inside doesn’t intimidate me, since I’ve lived and worked with inmates for the better part of a couple of decades,” Dame said.

“The old adage, ‘there but for the grace of God go I,’ is true. I could be in there with no option of leaving,” he says. “I owe my life to the Lord. I would not be here today if I hadn’t learned to trust in him.”

After his prison job fell to budget cuts, Dame began seminary. He believes Christians must have a stronger presence in prison ministry.

“There were people who have been in prison for 20 years without seeing any family or friends,” he said.

When he finishes seminary, Dame hopes he can return to prison with a less cynical attitude.

“I remember one young man who simply wanted to go home. Late one night, he walked out of the housing unit and walked to the perimeter fence. I arrived, shotgun in hand. As I covered this individual and waited for internal security, I was thinking of the recognition I was going to get for stopping his escape rather than of this young man, who just wanted to go home to someone who loved him,” he said.

“He simply wanted someone to talk with. I could have talked with him. I didn’t need to treat him as harshly as I did — formal, cold, detached. To see these young men as anything less than needy, desperate human beings, alone and lost, is to do disservice to the Lord who created them,” he said.

“I did my job well, but I didn’t do the Lord’s job very well.” 

*Brown is an associate editor and writer in the Office of Interpretation of the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or

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