Join our mailing list

Restorative Justice: Prison congregations multiply grace

Millions of people behind bars are waiting to hear the gospel. Forming congregations in prisons is an important step in restorative justice. A feature story exploring restorative justice and prison congregations.

Imagine yourself in an 8-by-10-foot room …shared with one or two strangers. You’re locked in except for when guards let you out for specific reasons. You now live a day’s drive from your family. You get a single 20-minute phone call per week.

Cut off from your workplace, community, and family, your identity rests on the crime that put you behind bars. Until, that is, you get a chance to hear about God’s grace for you.

Whether someone talks with you about grace and forgiveness depends in large part on how many Christians near your prison take Jesus at his word: “I was in prison and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).

However, if your prison does offer a Christian worship service, you aren’t the only one who will be changed. As more congregations form in prison, changes ripple through inmates, clergy, volunteers, and outside congregations.

Inside people

According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, about 2 million Americans live behind bars in jail or state or federal prison. Another 5 million are on probation, parole, or other corrections supervision. The U.S. has the world’s highest incarceration rate.

Gloria Gurwell, who spent six-and-a-half years in South Dakota penitentiaries, describes prison as sadness, isolation …and guilt.

“We’ve all been judged by society as being less than the rest of you. At age 51, I had the dubious honor of being the oldest lady going into prison,” she says.

In prison, a “very kind counselor,” as well as a minister and a Catholic priest, served as her listening posts. “They helped me feel forgiven. With clergy you feel the safety of confidentiality that you don’t feel with guards or prison people,” Gurwell says.

She started going to worship as soon as she could. “At first, depending on your crime, they keep you in lockdown,” she explains. Gurwell attended St. Dysmas, a Lutheran congregation in what was, at the time, South Dakota’s only coed prison. It’s where she met her second husband. She read Scripture in worship and took part in music.

“Men sat on one side, women on the other. We had wonderful singing. We prayed for each other. You’d see great big biker guys across the aisle, just crying. I don’t miss prison, but I miss that fellowship yet.” When transferred to another site, she attended Church of Hope, a Baptist prison congregation.

As a lifelong Episcopalian who’d served as treasurer and vestry member, Gurwell went into prison “pretty lock-stepped into one faith tradition. Prison helped me get rid of a lot of prejudices.”

Gary Gurwell grew up in a church that believed Christians can become sin-free. “My religion was black or white, all or nothing,” he says. Gurwell bounced between jobs—in overseas missions, mining, the pastorate—and burnouts. “Finally I told my family to give up on me. I went on a one-year drunk and ended up shooting a guy.”

He admits he became a charter member of St. Dysmas out of curiosity and the chance it could help him beat a life sentence. “It gave me stability. I felt guilty all my life, but those Lutheran pastors preached a lot of grace. I got fed. I heard God’s Word. And I got to fellowship with good people from the outside.”

Though prison churches often meet in cafeterias, St. Dysmas worships in an auditorium. The warden let inmates solicit funds to improve it, so Gurwell taught himself how to do stained glass. He designed and installed stained glass windows and rebuilt the seats.


Pastor Ed Nesselhuf looks for Christians willing to help form congregations behind walls. In 1984 he planted a Lutheran congregation in a women’s prison in Jessup, Maryland. It was named Community of St. Dysmas, after the crucified thief who asked Jesus to remember him.

Since then congregations in eight states have joined Prison Congregations of America, which Nesselhuf founded. “When you get agreement from the warden, chaplain, person who’s putting the congregation together, and outside congregations who supply volunteers, then it’s easy,” he says.

Clergy and weekly volunteers take special training to earn permission to come and go in the prison and to escort approved volunteers.

“When visitors come in, they don’t do the worship. All we ask is that they join in. They leave with a spring in their step. Over a few years, inside members connect with maybe a hundred outside worshipers. The outside people bring new ideas back to their churches.

“My wife says her richest experience of communion is to receive it inside. Worshiping inside intensifies everything you hear and see and feel about grace and forgiveness. It’s like the difference between studying justice over cake and coffee at church …or on the courthouse steps,” Nesselhuf says.

Emily Cardin pastors a Lutheran/Episcopal congregation inside Denver Women’s Correction Facility. “It’s amazing that we get 40 to 60 women at worship, plus the 4 visitors we’re allowed. We compete against movie night and gym time. When their cell door opens, they have 5 minutes to walk the equivalent of 4 blocks to where we worship. Some have been up working since 4 a.m.,” she says.

At least 75% of the women are in for drug- or alcohol-related offenses. Several have children at home. “When everything else is taken away, God is all you have. It took two years to get approved to bring in Communion. We serve it on a gold paper plate. Being fed at table does change lives. Women make time to read the Bible and take Bible study correspondence. Three women tithe because they want to. They make 60 cents a day.

“Outside visitors say their biggest surprise is that worshipers remind them of their mom, sister, daughter, or aunt,” Cardin says.

Outside people

George Bowden’s been involved with the Jessup prison congregation since it began. He goes in six to eight times a year to worship. He’s attended inside Bible studies and served on the outside board.

“Sometimes in a non-prison congregation, I take things for granted. Not at St. Dysmas. I always feel God’s presence there. Celebrating Communion anywhere makes us all equal. We are all God's children. I try to be humble and repentant. I am no better or worse than my brothers and sisters in Christ,” Bowden says.

Every Friday night, Diane “Di” and Pres Moerman make the 135-mile round trip from their Iowa home to a South Dakota prison, where they join inmates for singing and Bible study. “We’re praying that the warden will give permission for another time slot so we can add a worship service,” Di says.

“You hear from people who’ve never been inside that all prisoners will say they’re innocent. It’s not true. But it’s surprising how many guys have told us they thank God for prison—because it’s turned them around.

“As we’ve gotten to know the men and their backgrounds, my husband and I truly believe—and it’s not just words—that if not for God’s grace, we could be one of those people behind walls. It’s been very freeing to accept them as brothers in Christ.

“When I learned I had kidney cancer, I shared it with the men. They upheld our family in prayer. We praise God that the cancer was contained. Each week after, they reminded me that they were praying for my complete recovery,” Di says.

Learn More

Nesselhuf, an award-winning cowboy poet, donates his poetry earnings to PCA.

Gary Gurwell has designed stained glass windows for St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Vermillion, South Dakota; Blue Cloud Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Marvin, South Dakota; University of Sioux Falls; and other clients.

Check out your local Prison Fellowship chapter. 

Even if you can’t join a prison ministry, Steve Moerman says you can pray for prisoners and those who minister with them. You might also donate large print Bibles to prison ministries; many cells are dimly lit. Or correspond with a prisoner interested in Bible study.

Prison ministry changes lives. Ed Nesselhuf says that after seven years the recidivism (re-arrest) rate for members of St. Dysmas (in Jessup, Maryland) was 15%, compared to a state-wide rate of 45%. Prison Fellowship reports that the U.S. national recidivism rate is 70%. However, faith-based prison programs have a 16% recidivism rate.

Download free Lenten devotionals prepared by inmates. Discover the wealth of groups reaching out to prisoners. Read an essay on forgiveness in ordinary life.

Read about James Tramel, an inmate who became an Episcopal priest, and was released in 2006. Troy Rienstra accepted Christ while in solitary confinement. He has since founded Christians for Prisoners/Prisoners for Christ and is trying to form a congregation with fellow inmates in the Standish, Michigan, penitentiary.

Read an online book, Reflections of a Canadian Prison Warden, by Ron Wiebe, who, until he died, modeled the principles of restorative justice. Canada observes Restorative Justice Week every third week of November, sponsored in part by Correctional Services Canada. Read quarterly issues of Let’s Talk, the magazine of Correctional Services Canada.

Read a helpful definition of restorative justice. These sermons, speeches, and articles on restorative justice provide good fodder for sermons.

Start a Discussion

Talk about prison ministry and restorative justice:

  • What connections does your church have—either as a congregation or through individual members—with people in jail or prison? What local opportunities could you join?
  • How does your congregation respond to the Matthew 25:36 call to meet Jesus in prison? If you haven’t done much with this, what obstacles prevent you from reaching out?
  • In what ways do your worship services address the biblical ideas of guilt, grace, forgiveness, and 

Share Your Wisdom

What is the best way you’ve found to address and talk through principles of restorative justice? 

  • Did you find a resource—visual, online, printed, multimedia, or seminar—that helped your church reach out to and minister with prisoners?
  • If your congregation has formalized guidelines for applying grace, justice, and forgiveness to internal disputes, victimization, or church conflicts, will you share them with us?