Again this year, in our Lutheran congregations and in varied
and diverse pastoral settings we will proclaim and announce the
central message of Easter - the Lord Is Risen Indeed. Some will
hear this message and intellectually conceptualize it as an
abstract given in their faith. Others have come to know the reality
of the Easter message as a result of a 'death' experience in their
life. This may come in any form. It may be the death of a loved
one; it may be the death of a relationship; it may be the death of
part of our body; it may the death or eroding of our skills or
 The integration of the powerful language of Easter into our
everyday life in the midst of our 'death' experiences allows us to
live with ourselves, others and our God in the hope and reality of
a new life that frees us from the claims and bonds of all forms of
 The powerful theological images of resurrection, redemption,
hope and freedom take on special significance for those who live
daily in the midst of locks, brick walls, steel doors, razor wire
and regimented schedules. As a prison chaplain for 31 years I
learned the realization of the significance of those concepts from
those whom I was called to serve.
 I reflect on my journey in prison ministry. Upon responding
to the 'Call' of prison chaplaincy, I had to meet groups of peers
to ascertain my readiness and credentials for this unique ministry.
As a young, 29-year-old pastor, I found I could give intellectual
and theological articulation to the images and language of Easter.
But in my youth, I had not yet expressed or felt the impact of the
death of my father, the depression that invaded our family, the
moves that brought disruption of family life, the diminishing
capacity of my own energies and the harsh reality of working daily
in the prison environment.
 In the late '60s, there was Billy Joe! He was an articulate,
middle-aged Black man. He had shared with me the pain of years of
prejudice and the memories and nightmares he had of lynchings in
his home area of the South. He shared his constant struggle to 'let
go' of some of that so he could live life in relationship with
 Then he found himself drawn into an unhealthy relationship
with a white female volunteer at the prison. He didn't use this
relationship. He didn't exploit it. One day he came to me and said.
"Rev, I have something that is bigger than me - something that I
can't handle." We talked about and through it. I was able to have
the lady and her husband look at and consider some of the dynamics
that were manifesting themselves in their marriage.
 Billy Joe told me he could never have done this without
knowing and experiencing what it meant for him to be a child of God
- to be able to forgive - to be able to know the freedom of not
needing to hate, use and exploit. A man in prison whose chains had
been shattered by the images of Easter!
 Then in the late '70s there was John - a non-present
accomplice to the killing of a police officer. It was during my
first few weeks of work in a maximum security penitentiary that I
first met John. My newly acquired office contained the residue of
James Hoffa's prison library. My fellow chaplain let his office be
used as a hang out for the "Good Fellows." The lieutenant told me
which inmates would use me and how to identify gang members by
their body markings. My paranoia ceased to be healthy.
 John was doing a very, very long sentence. He had already
done ten years when I met him. One day he came into my office and
through his perpetual grin he said, "Rev you ought not be hiding
any longer." It was an epiphany for me, as I realized my fear had
trapped me in my office. He became my guide and entry into the
 He had befriended and gave support to new and frightened
inmates entering this austere environment for the first time. His
presence always provided a sense of strength and calmness to the
inmate Christian community.
 I asked John one day, "How do you keep your smile, your
equilibrium in the midst of all this garbage going on about you and
with the time you are doing?" He grinned, "Rev - come on now - of
all people I should not need to explain that to you!"
 He went on to share how after much pain and agony he had
carried around for so long, he had been able to "unload" to his
Lord. He commented, "His death and resurrection was to set me free
- not from the prison here all about me but from the prison my
heart had been kept in".
 Some ten years later, John called me one day. He wanted to
share with me that he had been paroled a few years back and had
just graduated with honors from the law school of a prestigious
university. I could almost see his grin over the phone as he asked
for a letter of reference.
 In the early '80s there was Will. He had been a respected
business man in his community and a member of the Board of Deacons
at the church he and his family attended. His company begin to
experience some rough times. He admits he used some bad judgment
when, along with two others, they 'adjusted their income and tax
filings.' Now he was sitting on his bunk in a small 8' x 10'
cubicle at a Federal Prison Camp.
 He arrived distraught with guilt and shame. He was
particularly remorseful about the shame he felt he had brought upon
his family, business and church associations over the last year. He
developed a deep spiritual relationship with an 82-year-old
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod pastor who, with his wife, came to
visit the men at the prison camp. The pastor became the father Will
never had. Within boundaries and limits we worked hard on setting
as the relationship progressed, one could see Will 'coming out of
himself.' Within this relationship he was able to experience
acceptance, forgiveness and begin to feel genuine worth. Will was
able to verbalize what he felt and what he came to experience with
this visiting pastor - God has come in Christ to bring about
reconciliation with Himself, others and "above all within
 The message and language of Easter frees us from the bonds
and claims of sin, death, evil, and destruction. There are few
places on earth where this has a more profound impact than upon
those who live daily surrounded by the concrete reality of all that
symbolizes physical bondage - Easter in Prison.
© May 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 3, Issue 5