The Blessing Way

Navaho-inspired ministry helps ex-inmates reintegrate into society
May 13, 2007

Prison chaplain and Episcopal priest Joyce Penfield was in her second year working at the Adult Correctional Institution in Cranston, Rhode Island, when she noticed the inmates in the women's division were starting to look familiar.

Penfield was seeing prison statistics reflected in their faces. "Not many people talk about the recidivism, but when you can name and recognize 50 to 60 percent of the new female admits, something's not right," she said.

The Rhode Island Department of Corrections releases back into the community 350 men and women a month. Past statistics predict that 50 percent of those released will return within three years -- 30 percent within the first six months. Almost three quarters of the people in prison have a drug problem, which plays a significant role in their return to crime and to prison after release.

Penfield began to explore the reasons ex-offenders became offenders again. Because of an inadequate system of discharge and lack of social support, they had few places to turn upon their release, she said, other than to the same unhealthy relationships that paved their way to prison in the first place.

"For me there was a moral tug," said Penfield, who said she saw too many ex-offenders left alone to face too many challenges: no job, on the street, no family, their kids taken away, no place to live. Then a female corrections officer showed her a list of the names of women who had died within months of leaving ACI, many from drug overdose, some from homicide.

'A moral imperative'
"In the end it became to me a moral imperative to respond to the variety of things that I saw happening," she said.

Penfield shared her concerns with 15 Episcopal Church colleagues. Together they formed "The Blessing Way," a ministry named after the Navaho ceremony of preparing someone for a major transition in life and restoring them to their community and their Creator.

The Blessing Way operates out of St. Andrew's and St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Providence, where Penfield serves as part-time priest-in-charge. The nonprofit, faith-based, nondenominational organization provides spiritual support and guidance to men and women reentering the community from prison or drug-treatment facilities, so they can reintegrate successfully into the community. Services are free.

"We don't preach or demand Christ; we practice it," Penfield said. "We provide a door that people can enter in."

Led by a peer leader or a volunteer, The Blessing Way offers weekly prayer circles to aid with drug-relapse prevention. The ministry also provides personal guidance, spiritual counseling and life-skills training to help participants readjust to life outside.

"Most of [the offenders] say faith is what they need. It's that spiritual piece that's lacking that brought them to the system," said Jean Jackson, the ministry's first paid staff member, who provides spiritual and emotional support to participants' families. Her part-time position is funded with a 2006 United Thank Offering grant. "There is a lack of self-esteem, a lack of trust, a lack of love, a lack of spiritual principles -- just a lack. The family is the foundation to stop [recidivism]."

Ex-offenders play a key role in the organization, serving on the board of directors, as peer leaders who lead support groups and model successful reintegration into the community, and as volunteers. Louis Gencarella leads meditation circles at the Providence (short-term residential treatment) Center and at The Blessing Way and is joining the board. He developed the comprehensive community-resource directory used to make referrals. He also does fund-raising and is the residential manager of The Blessing Way's new transitional house for men, which opened in December.

The meditation circles Gencarella leads are "a cross between Christianity, Zen and Native American spirituality," he said. A typical meeting draws 20 to 25 people. Whenever possible, The Blessing Way hires ex-offenders for clerical work and pays peer leaders a living-wage stipend.

"It's part of our ethics, that we will not hire our participants who are in a desperate situation for other than a living wage," Penfield said. "Sometimes they need economic help. When they get stable, they do volunteer work, and we'll pay another person who needs the help."

-- To learn more about The Blessing Way, visit its website Karen Bota is a freelance writer living in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. 

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