Dr. Karen Swanson spoke to students, faculty and staff about lessons to be learned from worship in prison at a convocation event in the Chapel on Monday. Swanson is director of the Institute for Prison Ministries (IPM) at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.
She began her presentation by challenging the audience to put themselves in the shoes of the imprisoned.
“Use your imagination as we enter into the world of incarceration,” she said.
She then described the harsh conditions of both national and local prisons and the unfortunate circumstances that lead to most of the inmates’ incarceration. She explained that many of these inmates turned to crime as a last resort to provide for themselves and their families. Because of the lack of resources, these individuals lacked opportunity and therefore turned to criminal activity for solace. She continued by stating that Christian worship, when done well, can help these inmates encounter God and transform their lives.
When these inmates were asked what “worshiping behind bars” meant to them, they responded, “I’m looking for mercy, not forgiveness.”
Swanson explained that prison worship can help inmates “get out of themselves” and “connect spiritually” with others. She continued by saying that worship provides the incarcerated a rescue from the judgment of the outside world and helps them to connect to something greater than themselves.
“Christian worship is a response to joy in celebration of God. It is expressed in our speech, listening, thoughts, reflections, meditations and actions,” Swanson said. “Worship should be our constant attitude and dedication to Christ.”
She explained that when prisoners see heartfelt worship, they see joy. They see when lives are impacted by Christ and want to be impacted in the same way.
“They witness this engagement. Lost people are drawn in. The unbelievers want what the believers have,” she said.
This engagement allows the Gospel to spread throughout prisons and gives greater meaning to the inmates’ lives.
Swanson began her correctional ministry by teaching in the Life Learning Program at Cook County Jail in Chicago, Illinios. She continues to serve in jails and prisons and on a reentry board of directors.