"Christ in Prison": Interview with OCPM Board Chair Kory Warr
In his professional life, Kory Warr is a commercial real estate developer. As an Antiochian Orthodox Christian, he has served terms as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Antiochian Archdiocese, and as a Board member for St. Tikhon's Orthodox Theological Seminary. He is a member of St. Elijah Antiochian Orthodox Church in Oklahoma City, OK, and is currently the chairman of the Board of Trustees for Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry. Antiochian.org recently had the opportunity to ask him about his outreach to prisoners, and what motivates him to minister to the incarcerated.
Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you first become interested in prison ministry?
I got involved in prison ministry in 2005. Prior to that, if I had made a list of things I might have wanted to do as a layman in the Church, prison ministry would have been at the very bottom—prison ministry was literally the last thing I wanted to do. However, my bishop, Bishop Basil of Wichita, asked me to participate in a working group whose task it was to begin to shape the prison ministry of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America into the official prison ministry of SCOBA (now the Assembly of Bishops). I agreed to do this purely because my bishop had asked me to do it. In fact, I distinctly remember traveling to this meeting and thinking to myself, “This is a colossal waste of time.”
However, the first night the working group was together, as some of the priests who had been involved in prison ministry for decades began to talk about the transforming work that God was doing in prisons through the Church, somehow a love for this ministry was implanted in my heart.
I am confident this love came from God because I neither sought it nor even wanted it: indeed, my plan was to attend that meeting in obedience to my bishop and then to forget about prison ministry forever. I am very grateful that God had a different plan.
How did OCPM get started, and what are its main areas of outreach?
OCPM in its current form grew out of that working group in 2005, when Metropolitan Philip gave the prison ministry of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America to SCOBA. However, OCPM really had its beginnings in the 1960s with the ministry of Duane Pederson, at that time a Protestant minister who felt called to serve the people whom society deemed the least desirable. This call worked itself out first with a ministry to street people in Hollywood; eventually, however, a group even more despised by society than street people came to his attention—prisoners. And so Duane began a vibrant jail and prison ministry, which he brought with him when he came into the Orthodox Church in the 1980’s under the omophorion of Metropolitan Philip, who ordained him priest and asked him to be in charge of prison ministry for the Antiochian Archdiocese. It was this ministry, which Father Duane so faithfully stewarded, that became OCPM in 2005.
OCPM has two main areas of outreach. The first is our correspondence program. Through it, we offer Bibles, books, icons, and correspondence courses to people who are in prison, all free of charge. Last year, we sent out over 300 Bibles, over 1,000 books, and over 2,000 icons, to people in prison. We also send out general and personal correspondence to people who are in prison. Last year, we sent out over 38,000 letters to people in prison.
OCPM’s second area of outreach is to the parishes. As important as our correspondence program is, it is not our primary or most important function. OCPM’s primary function is not to do direct prison ministry, but rather to enable and equip the Church on the parish level to do prison ministry. In that connection, we offer a number of resources to parishes that are doing prison ministry, or are interested in becoming involved in prison ministry.
First, we offer all of the materials we offer to people who are in prison to people who are doing prison ministry, free of charge; this includes Bibles, icons and a variety of excellent catechetical materials. Second, our staff travels all over the country offering training in jail and prison ministry to priests and laity. We also offer spiritual retreats centered around the work God is doing in prisons. Both of these programs are offered totally free of charge. Our staff is also constantly working to help people who are doing prison ministry navigate its various and unique challenges. OCPM’s mission is to do everything we can to help the Church visit Christ in prison.
What is your role with OCPM? What are some of its ministry goals and where would you like to see Orthodox prison ministry go in the next 5-10 years?
I am the Chairman of the Board of Trustees. I also help with the correspondence program.
When I think about goals for OCPM, what immediately comes to mind are things I hope will happen in the Church with respect to people who are in conflict with the law. The first thing I would like to see is that at least half the parishes in the United States would become involved in prison ministry in some way or another within the next ten years. Prison ministry is a basic function of the Church, like feeding the poor, clothing the naked and visiting the sick, and there is no reason we all can’t do it. This doesn’t mean we all have to lead Bible studies on death row—there are innumerable ways to minister to people who are in prison, many of which don’t even involve physically entering a prison facility. The point is that somebody has to visit Christ in prison, and, if not the Church, then who?
The second thing I would like to see is more difficult and more complicated. I would like to see the Church begin to open its doors to people coming out of prison. It is easier to minister to someone who is safely locked behind prison walls than to someone who comes out of prison and into the doors of your parish. It is much less complicated to deal with a felon on an occasional basis in a secure environment than to try to integrate him into your parish family. In considering this issue, it is useful to remember that we are not merely one in a collection of various Christian denominations: we are the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15), and as such are uniquely suited to deal with people who come from backgrounds of brokenness and criminality. It is popular to refer to the Church as the hospital of the soul: we have to ask ourselves whether we really believe this, or if we are merely paying lip service to a pious idea. We have to ask ourselves whether we believe that the power of Christ in the Church, over which the gates of hell cannot prevail (cf. Matthew 16:18), is somehow limited or even overcome by the gates of a human prison. We have to ask ourselves whether we really believe that God has the power to redeem and transform even a man who has been in prison.
If the answer is “Yes”, then we need to figure out how to integrate him into our parish: if the answer is “No”, then I would submit that we need to reexamine the claims of the Church and its Gospel. This is not to say that there are not practical considerations, sometimes of great complexity, involved in bringing someone who has been in prison into the life of a parish: OCPM is working with parishes, on an individual basis, providing guidelines and support in an effort to make this integration a reality. St. Paul was complicit in the murder of the Protomartyr Stephen (cf. Acts 7:58). This man, who had innocent blood on his hands, was nevertheless saved by the miraculous imposition of God’s grace on the road to Damascus (cf. Acts 9:1-9). Subsequent to this, Ananias and Barnabas overcame their own natural fear of him, and the natural fear of their brethren, to ensure that Paul was received into the community of the Church (cf. Acts 9:10-18, 26-28). Not every man coming out of prison is a St. Paul; however, we do know that God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth (cf. 1 Timothy 2:4)—again, if a man can’t come to the Church for this, where can he go?
Can you describe for us an Antiochian priest (or parish) who are active in prison ministry? How does the Antiochian Archdiocese support the work of OCPM?
St. Elijah in Oklahoma City has a very active prison ministry which is led by one of our board members, Allyn Baskerville. This group helps prepare orders of books, Bibles and icons that go out to people in prison. They also stuffed the envelopes for many of those 38,000 letters we sent out last year. Additionally, they have taken it upon themselves to help out at a local homeless shelter, since many people who are homeless have spent time in prison. They are also about to begin participating in a Bible study that one of the group is leading in an aftercare setting. This is a great example of group of people who are dedicated to serving Christ in prison in whatever way they are able, and are doing so through a variety of avenues, none of which involve going into a prison!
Metropolitan Philip has been extremely supportive of OCPM, first of all by giving the prison ministry of the Archdiocese to SCOBA in 2005! Subsequent to that inspired gesture, His Eminence has continued to support our work, most recently by giving us a platform to speak about the work of OCPM to the entire Archdiocese convention last July in Houston.
How has your faith grown and/or been stretched, by ministering to those behind bars?
That God has allowed me to participate in this ministry has strengthened and deepened my faith immeasurably. My involvement in OCPM has shown me the certainty of God’s transforming power as I have seen it manifested in the lives of the men with whom we work, in spite of their upbringing, which often is characterized by criminality and abuse, in spite of their own enslavement to sin, which is often extensive, and in spite of the profound darkness of the prison environment. This, in turn, has given me the courage to face up to my own enslavement to sin more honestly, believing that God can and will set me free. There is a line in one of the prayers we say in preparation for Holy Communion: Thou wilt come in and enlighten my darkened reasoning. I believe that Thou wilt do this. Being a part of OCPM has allowed me to say this prayer with much greater faith.
What can we the faithful do, to further the cause of prison ministry in our parishes?
The easiest, and most immediate thing, is take up a collection. We run on an absolute shoestring, and money is always an issue. We work with a group of people who are indigent: those who have “jobs” within the prison system earn, on average, around 35 cents per hour. Even these jobs, however, are at a premium, and are not available to very many people. Consequently, we send everything into the prisons free of charge. As I mentioned above, we also provide all our materials, training and retreats free of charge to the parishes, because we don’t want anything to stand in the way of the Church visiting Christ in prison. I should mention that, despite their poverty, we receive donations every single week from people who are in prison, typically five or ten dollars, which, at 35 cents per hour, represents somewhere between $325-$650 to the average middle-class person.