Prison minister lives out forgiveness

After daughter's murder, George Day turned to God and now counsels criminals
October 31, 2003

On almost any day of the week, you can find the Rev. George Day on his way to far-flung parts of Oklahoma. He could be traveling to Taft, a tiny community near Muskogee in the eastern part of the state; to Altus in the southwest corner near the Texas border; or to Lexington, 60 miles south of Oklahoma City.

Day, who became an Episcopalian 17 years ago and was ordained a deacon seven years later, serves at St. Mary's, a parish of about 900 in Edmond, Okla,, just north of Oklahoma City. But his real calling is as the leader of St. Patrick's Congregation of the Incarcerated. That's why Day has traveled the state for the past decade, putting an average of 42,000 miles per year on the white Dodge minivan provided to him by the Commission on Prison Ministry.

A jaunty 69-year-old, Day tirelessly makes these visits week after week, year after year with a deep sense of conviction, sincerity and calm sense of authority -- working among people whom the outside world has left behind to survive in a setting that cultivates frustration, misery and, frequently, violence and danger.

"These people are no different than you and me," he says often. "They're my friends." And just as any good friend would, Day listens to their problems, communicates with their families, goes to bat for them with prison authorities and advocates their rights at the state level. "I'm there to listen and to care," he says. "They really need to talk to somebody who gives a tinker's dam."

When asked why he chose this difficult calling, with a wry smile, he says, "It chose me." Like all Episcopal deacons, he was required to decide upon a ministry, he says. He began in a hospital setting but soon realized that the job of visiting patients' bedsides wasn't for him. After hearing a lecture by a prison chaplain, he asked to visit a maximum-security facility for women in Oklahoma City and immediately recognized that he belonged in prison ministry.

From pain comes forgiveness

Those well-acquainted with Day, however, tell another story about the reason for his calling. "The thing that's so unique about his ministry is that George and his wife lost a daughter about 15 years ago," says Bishop Robert Moody of the Diocese of Oklahoma. "She was brutally murdered in Dallas. It was during this terrible time of crisis that George became a Christian and later pursued this calling."

Stan Basler, director of criminal justice and mercy minister for the Oklahoma Conference of the United Methodist Church, observes, "One of the remarkable things about him is that he's made that grief into something positive. He's living out his forgiveness, and a lot of inmates are aware of that."

The Rev. Mark Story, rector of St. Mary's where George is deacon, agrees. "This horrible thing has become the place where Christ shines the brightest. I really believe George's life was transformed -- transfigured, even." "Frankly," Story says, "I think that's what gives him authenticity."

On a typical day at one of the 10 facilities he visits, Day will celebrate the Eucharist for a crowd of anywhere from 10 to 50. On the fourth Saturday in Lent, retired Bishop William Cox from the Diocese of Oklahoma confirmed 25 women in a place Day visits weekly. Over the years, attendance at Day's services has grown substantially. According to the Prison Com-mission's annual report to the diocese, Day had served 4,282 prisoners by October 2002, up by 500 from 2001 and up 800 from 2000.

After each service, Day makes himself available to inmates who want to discuss religion, chat about the news of the day or air their personal problems, which, he says, are mostly centered around concerns for their health and families. According to Day, prison ministry can help heal the wounded spirits of inmates, many of whom have seldom received any gesture of caring, love or forgiveness in or outside the prison walls.

The prisoners agree. "The Department of Corrections can't change people; God can," says Greg, an inmate who attends St. Patrick's services regularly. Several other prisoners observe that the nature of incarceration almost forces spiritual introspection. Greg adds, "People forget that the word 'penitentiary' means to be penitent, to repent." He thinks of the facility where he's confined as a "training ground, a boot camp" for God's work among the prisoners, which is one of the few things that can carry

Mary Smith is director of programs for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and oversees prison ministry. She concurs that faith-based activities play an important part in inmate rehabilitation. "People like George Day present a caring and compassionate role model. They help offenders get in contact with their faith," she says, noting that the Episcopal Church, in particular, has become involved in re-entry, making sure inmates have a home church upon release.

But the frustrations of prison ministry are many. From a shrunken state budget that's drastically cut prison funds to the indifference and incompetence of certain staff members, Day continually faces obstacles.

Bridging a gap

Day fulfills the deacon's role as the bridge between the world and the church, Story says. "George really does that. He helps me focus on what's important." The Rev. Jackie Means, director of Episcopal Ministries to the Incarcerated at the Episcopal Church Center in New York, visited Day in Oklahoma a few years ago. "We visited six places and drove 740 miles. I couldn't keep up with him!" she exclaims. "He's so dedicated, so good at what he does. He represents the church in the best way. I wish I had a hundred more like him."

Day inspires inmates, as well. Bo Cox, an inmate who wrote the meditations for the Summer 2002 issue of Forward Day by Day, refers to Day in his writing: "Two or three times a month, I attend Eucharist, where a deacon who could very easily hate all lawless people loves me and teaches me about Jesus." Germaine, a woman recently released from a minimum-security facility, concludes, "I've spent 10 years in here, and I didn't think I deserved it. It's easy to have a chip on your shoulder, to feel a lot of hate and bitterness. But Father Day has always stuck with me. He's given me a peace I've never had before. Faith and unconditional love are awesome."

To learn more about ministry to the incarcerated, contact the Office of Prison Ministries at jmeans@episcopalchurch.org or visit http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/federal-ministries.

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