I was asked to write a brief synopsis of Collins Christian Ministries (CCM), our ecumenical prison ministry in Western New York. CCM functions as a volunteer program for Collins Correctional, a medium security facility of men operated by New York State, about 50 miles south of Buffalo.
CCM is our own version of Kairos, which has been around for quite a while. CCM includes women, which I will expound on later. Members consist of several different Christian denominations, which create varying perspectives, yet are all focused on spreading God’s love.
We conduct two “weekends” per year, in the fall and spring. They run from a Thursday evening kickoff session to a “graduation ceremony” on Sunday afternoon. The males-only “Inside Team” goes in at 7:00 a.m. (except Thursday), and leaves at 9:00 p.m., except on Sunday. Most of the group sleeps at a nearby church.
The “Outside Team” consists of a male and female support group—making breakfast, cooking and transporting dinner to the inside, and praying for the prisoners and Inside Team alike. Females may briefly attend the dinner session each night, and the whole of the Sunday graduation. After a weekend is completed, the women members may attend with their male counterparts in “grouping sessions”, which are weekly sustaining and support sessions. We often stay in touch with our new brothers after their release.
How does all this work, you ask? The prison chaplain who works closely with our group selects about 40 applicants to attend each four-day weekend. We supply about 25 members who are molded into “family units”, with about eight inmates per table. There are Spanish-speaking members who work with Latino inmates. There is much planning that goes into each session, and much reward coming out.
We sing (we have musicians among us), we pray, we educate inmates about the triune God. We talk, we counsel through osmosis, we don’t pry, we offer forgiveness. I would say that forgiveness is the most important part of the weekend—encouraging the inmates to forgive those who have harmed them, and asking God’s forgiveness for the harm they have done to others. We share meals with them, both those prepared by the prison staff and our homecooked efforts.
The highlight of the weekend occurs on Saturday night with a forgiveness ceremony, followed by the Outside Team’s presence (and friends) at the prison fence, saying prayers and singing to those inside. It moves hardened men to tears, including yours truly.
The basic thread that runs through the sessions is: Love, Love, Listen, Listen. We turn it all over to Jesus, working through the Holy Spirit. We win some and we lose some, but it does not deter us. The prison has welcomed us through the years because we help to lower the rate of recidivism.
Sadly, the pandemic has cancelled our work for the past two years. We have all suffered that loss. We did manage to have the chaplain relay email messages (without addresses) for inmates to read at Christmas and Easter.
We have been hearing encouraging news lately about the possibility of starting up again this spring. It may not look and taste the same, but we hope to be able to continue God’s work. After all, isn’t that what Jesus told his followers in Matthew 25 to do? “Where were you when I asked you to visit those in prison? What you do to the least of these, you do to me.”