For the past couple of years, a ministry team from Evangelical United Methodist Church has visited the Montana Women’s Prison once a month to lead a worship service.
“The neat thing is you give it some time and you start creating a community of faith, even though we meet once a month,” said the Rev. Wendy Ochs, EUMC pastor. “There are women there who consider us their church.”
Connecting with the women also “gives us an understanding of their needs coming out,” Ochs said.
Though the small Methodist church can’t meet all the women's needs, it can make clothing and other items available to them through its Free Store.
“We can offer prayer and a listening ear, a place where they can feel nurtured and loved,” Ochs said.
Like EUMC, other churches and organizations in the Billings area reach out to inmates at the prison or the county jail, ministering to their spiritual, emotional and practical needs and those of their families. But they do it in isolation, rather than in community — or maybe they want to help but don’t know where to start.
With that in mind, the Billings church is hosting an informational meeting Wednesday evening to introduce Healing Communities.
“It will be a chance for those doing that work already and others doing different things to talk about what we’re doing already, what needs are being met and what resources we have and could offer,” Ochs said.
The meeting is being put on by Freedom in Christ Prison Ministry, based in Anaconda, and the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. Through Healing Communities, churches and nonprofits create welcoming networks of support and help for inmates, those released from incarceration and others affected by it.
That can range from providing a welcoming atmosphere of support, healing, redemption and reconciliation to offering mentoring, referrals and other practical types of help. Throughout the U.S., Healing Community congregations build teams with other area churches and nonprofits to help those affected by the criminal-justice system.
The main speaker at Wednesday's meeting will be Doug Walker, national coordinator for Criminal Justice Reform for the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. In August, Walker met with interested people in Missoula and Deer Lodge.
Like the Billings gathering, those meetings were sponsored by the UMC General Board of Church and Society and the FCPM. The FCPM's mission is to change lives at the Montana State Prison through the power and presence of Jesus Christ.
Melanie Martin-Dent, vice chairwoman of FCPM and an interim pastor in Dillon, said the ecumenical ministry began by putting on retreats at the prison in Deer Lodge and then recognized the need for an ongoing church. The inmates make up the congregation, the pastor comes from outside the prison, and the organization raises funds to keep the work going.
In looking for connections for the ministry, Martin-Dent learned about Walker’s Healing Communities work.
“It’s about mobilizing existing resources to become Stations of Hope,” she said in a telephone interview. “He’s done trainings for community groups, law enforcement personnel in Washington, for Islamic people, for Buddhists and others. So it’s a big umbrella, a big tent.”
In August, she invited him to meet with church and community members in Missoula and Deer Lodge. This time in Montana, Walker will put on training sessions in Missoula and Butte.
Then, in addition to Billings, he will conduct informational meetings in Bozeman, Kalispell, Great Falls, Helena and on the Fort Peck and Rocky Boy reservations. Depending on the response, Martin-Dent said, Walker could return in June to put on training sessions for those communities that choose to become Healing Communities.
She hopes to see a good turnout for the initial gatherings.
“It’s a chance to put a face on Healing Communities and ask questions,” she said.