“God’s healing and grace are not limited by a cement wall or razor wire, and his mercy is able to permeate even the most brutal environment. The simple truth is God’s love is present and available to all.”
Lori Wilbert has been a Lutheran deaconess serving Stateville Correctional Center in chaplaincy ministry for 32 years. Each time she goes to prison, she builds relationships, sees men continuing to grow, and grows herself. The call for a chaplaincy presence behind the wall “enables inmates to know a God who is faithful, forgiving, and grace-filled. Perhaps, most important of all, they know a God who loves them and has not forgotten them.”
Deaconess Wilbert teaches classes to general population students, protective custody students, and segregation students. Together with Deaconess Wilbert, the men study a Houses of Healing curriculum which includes anger/violence management, the principals of restorative justice (taking accountability for their actions), addiction and recovery, and healthy relationships. “Most of the men who attend class each week realize they have struggles and are trying to better understand themselves. Our discussions revolve around life-long struggles with depression, anxiety, violence, addictions, and growing up in harsh conditions which include poverty and violence.”
Deaconess Wilbert recognizes “we’ve all sinned. We’ve all fallen short: God’s grace, God’s grace, God’s grace.” As she humbly walks, continuing to learn of the realities of the human condition and a justice system that “sometimes gets it right while other times gets it all wrong,” she says “one thing I’ve learned again and again is that when any of us looks for God, don’t look for perfection in your fellow human beings, don’t look for it in yourself, don’t expect it from the Church or places that we routinely think of as sacred. The sacred, that is, God, is in the mundane, the obscene and obscure and the places we least expect.”
Deaconess Wilbert sees the light of God’s love in so many places behind the wall from cards and drawings sent in to growth within individual men both in the small moments and over the long-term. In her early spring newsletter she shared of one man saying “he is the one with advancing cancer, held in a prison infirmary call, fighting a disease that may take his life before his out-date and the life he knew on the outside. His faith is evident, a light in a dark place. His humility a thing to admire, his graciousness evident to all who happen to come by and give him a few moments time.”
“There are successes and inevitable failures.” Overall, Deaconess Wilbert strives “to give these men hope: hope in a God who loves them no matter what, a God who oversees their lives and offers them healing.”
In light of God’s grace and her 32 years serving those who are incarcerated, Deaconess Wilbert recently penned in her newsletter that prison is “a place where God’s spirit dwells. A place where God’s light is seen in the many acts of kindness and courage running alongside the cruelty that is expected yet does not have the upper hand.” Years earlier when she wrote of who lives behind the wall, Deaconess Wilbert’s response was “men, women, youth–someone’s mother, father, daughter, son, grandson, or granddaughter. Many are guilty, a few are innocent. Each is precious in the eyes of God who created all of us–as are the victims and those that have suffered harm and violence because of their actions.”
Community and relationships with our brothers and sisters, all of whom are precious in the eyes of God, are vital toward a healthy life-on both sides of the wall.
“Community is full of individuals who support us, hold us, advocate for us, and hold us to accountability. We all need people in our life to do this. People who will love us no matter what, have our back when no one else does, and provide positive counsel when we need it most. That is what the Church does in prison.”
If you would like to learn more about ministry to incarcerated individuals and how you can be involved or if you would like to help in financially supporting the ministry of Deaconess Wilbert, please contact the district office at firstname.lastname@example.org.