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Criminal justice system broken, says volunteer chaplain

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The Rev. Madeline McDonald
Oct. 19, 2006

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 tortured."

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 with him."

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 Restorative Justice."

"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 Principles.

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 holiness."

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 Penalty.

"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 fulfilling."

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

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