“And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did I it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Matthew 25:39-40 NRSV
I am a pastor serving St. Dysmas Of South Dakota, an ELCA congregation inside the walls of the South Dakota State Penitentiary in Sioux Falls, SD. The men in my congregation come from a wide variety of racial, social and economic backgrounds and are in prison for a wide range of reasons. South Dakota is approximately 87% white and 9% native but the statistics in prison do not even come close to reflecting that ratio. As of March 31, 2020, there were 1,732 white males in the South Dakota prison system and 1,032 Native Americans. The prison system population is disproportionately represented by Native American! I will not go into reasons for this disparity in depth, but it certainly reflects a severe problem in our society and justice system.
One interesting thing about serving a congregation inside the walls of prison–is that the men that worship at St Dysmas come from many different religious backgrounds. I am committed to serve all men regardless of their background. In a typical worship service there will be men who were raised Lutheran of all kinds, Baptist, Reformed, Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist, Messianic Jews, and Orthodox Jews. There are those with no prior religious affiliation, and Native Americans who participate in traditional sweat lodges. I find a beauty in this diversity as we acknowledge one God expressed and heard in many traditions.
As I listen to the men who come to visit with me, I hear common themes that contributed to their imprisonment. Many of them were raised in homes that were abusive, had addicted parents, absent parents, and many were raised in low income homes. This is especially true for the Native American men who grew up in extreme poverty on the reservations. The other thing I hear often is the fact that they feel they had inadequate legal representation at trial. In the current justice system if you have enough money to hire an attorney who will focus their attention on your case, you have a much better chance of either being acquitted or receiving lighter sentences. If you must rely on a public defender who is overwhelmed with heavy caseloads you are likely to receive a harsher sentence for the same offense others have committed but had better representation. It is hard to hear these stories but as a pastor, my place is to make sure they know, in the midst of this injustice, that they are loved by God no matter what.
I love serving the men in prison. The men know who they are. There are no pretenses and they know what they need. They have had their head hanging over the abyss. They have come to a point in their life where they know something has to change and there must be something more to life than what they had previously experienced. They are eager to hear the good news of Jesus Christ and that good news changes them. When they come forward to receive Holy Communion there is an eagerness in their eyes. They know they need Christ and his unconditional love. For many of these men it is the first time they have felt a real sense of peace in their lives.
Due to the COVID 19 pandemic the South Dakota Department of Corrections is not allowing any visitors or volunteers inside of the prison. I am unable to go inside for pastoral care visits or to lead worship. However, I record a worship service on DVD and send it in each week. The service is played on the prison’s internal TV system. The men watch the service in their cells rather than assemble as a congregation.
At St Dysmas Lutheran Church all are truly welcome to worship with us. The good news of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to all people. It is a joy to be called to bring that message to this community worshiping behind the bars of a prison.
Rev. Wayne Gallipo is a graduate of Luther Seminary and served in three parishes prior to taking the call to serve as Lead Pastor for St. Dysmas of South Dakota. He serves as a board member and treasurer of Prison Congregations of America (PCA). The mission of PCA is to build communities of faith inside and outside of prisons in the United States. Rev. Gallipo and his wife Rev. Joy Gonnerman live in Sioux City, IA.