CHURCH AT PRISON: PART 1 – Prison pastors following inmates after their release | The Saint Albans Messenger
CHURCH AT PRISON: PART 1 – Prison pastors following inmates after their release
This is part one in a three-part series. Parts two and three will introduce former inmates – a man and a woman – whose lives have been touched by Church at Prison.
ST. ALBANS — In 1992, Pastor Pete Fiske accepted a speaking assignment at Northwest State Correctional Facility (NWSCF), in St. Albans Town. It was during a Kairos weekend. Kairos is an international Christian prison ministry. At that point, a prison ministry was the farthest thing from his mind.
“It was all just scary looking stuff,” Pastor Pete said of his first impression of life inside a prison. “I personally didn’t feel an inkling to do that.”
In September of ’92, he visited a church service in the prison, led by Franklin County native Denis Chevalier. Within that timeframe, Chevalier had to temporarily step back. Pastor Pete and his wife, Agnes, took over the service for Chevalier as a means to help him out in a bind.
Two months later, Chevalier informed Pastor Pete he was not returning. That is how Pastor Pete and his wife, Agnes, adopted a new calling
“In July of 1993, God called me to leave IBM (after 28 years), and go to full-time in prison ministry,” Pastor Pete said. “God broke open my heart, and poured His love in,” he said.
The Fiskes moved to St. Albans and in 1993 established a non-denominational church at NWSCF: The Church at Northwest. Four years later, it became a non-profit church: The Church At Prison, Inc. (CAP).
Agnes faithfully accompanied her husband to the prison while he facilitated the services. Sadly, she passed away in 2004.
Pastor Pete became instrumental in starting a college course of study, Patmos Christian Academy. “Patmos” is derived from the prison island, on which the apostle John wrote the Book of Revelation.
There are also Bible studies for inmates and statewide prison ministry conferences; the eighteenth was held last May.
The Vermont Treatment Program for Sexual Abusers then was housed at the St. Albans prison. And Pastor Pete soon became involved. He has been working with sexual offenders, after they’ve been released, for about 18 years.
Half of CAP’s work is with inmates in aftercare. “That’s when the rubber meets the road,” Pastor Pete said. “Few people want to be involved in aftercare.”
Bridge Builders of Vermont helps newly released inmates make the transition into the community. Safe Sanctuary Seminars, another CAP offering, works with the Department of Corrections (DOC). The seminars offer help to churches in crisis. Typical difficulties might involve a congregation that is unsure how to handle a sexual offender within their congregation, or a sexual offense that has happened within the church family.
CAP programs work with, and through, the DOC, for numerous reasons. There are times, for instance, some inmates are so notorious that they cannot be released in Vermont. Therefore, relocation to another state is necessary and, most relocation has worked, says the pastor.
A year and a half after Agnes died, the pastor met Joanne (Jo), at another prison ministry leader’s funeral. “Our first date was in prison,” Pastor Pete said, with a chuckle. Jo had been invited to attend the prison church service. “If that hadn’t worked out there wouldn’t have been a second date!”
In December 2006, they were married in Atlanta, Ga. and repeated the ceremony the following January, for their prison congregation at the Church at Northwest. They are now 68 and 64, respectively, and reside in Jericho.
Pastor Jo became immersed in the ministry. In 2007, she fully retired from her previous job, and began full-time with CAP.
At that time, the prisoners at NWSCF were men only. Their work changed a bit, when the inmate population became all women, in January. 2009.
“It was shocking when we knew that was going to happen,” Pastor Jo said, about the switch to a female population. “We didn’t know what God was going to do with the ministry.”
But they carried on.
One of the major losses when the prison became all women in January 2009 was the already established activity among the male population. Pastors Pete and Jo had to rebuild, and that meant more work.
For example, under new rules, their volunteer groups could meet only once a week. So, Bible study eventually became part of the Sunday service. Pastoral counseling, which the pastors feel is the heart of their ministry, happened on Wednesdays.
“I enjoyed working with the women,” Pastor Pete said. “I find them to be very interactive during the preaching.”
Pastor Pete, however, speaks highly of the men in prison who have joined CAP.
According to the Fiskes, most of the women they have served have had severe drug problems, and the inevitable cycle of woes that follow that.
The current state of the economy hasn’t been a help in resolving problems for the just-released inmate. More transitional housing would be helpful, say the pastors. Many of the inmates – male or female — have no approved residence for release, and must remain in prison until a place is found. For some, that adds up to months, even years.
“We try to put God in their lives, and try to bring a future and a hope back into their lives,” Pastor Pete said of the inmates and ex-cons they assist.
The pastors encourage former inmates to join a church congregation of their choosing.
During the time when women were at NWSCF, Pastor Pete was more apt to do the preaching, while Jo handled pastoral duties. She was the only female pastor in Vermont offering pastoral counseling in prison. Now that men have been moved back to the NWSCF, she has gained more experience in Bible studies and counseling and is more active in those areas.
“Having the experience with both men and women has given us more in-depth experience with victims of abuse/sexual abuse,” Pastor Jo said.
Recent additions to the Fiskes’ ministry are support groups, such as New Creations Christian Fellowship, which was initially formed, a few years ago, by area residents Chandler and Patty Ede.
Over the years, the Fiskes heard frequently from former inmates living in Burlington who wanted a support group of their own. “God’s been telling us: it’s time to gather the men in the streets of Burlington,” Pastor Jo said, and now the New Creations Christian Fellowship effort has a presence in Burlington.
The Fiskes and the New Creations Christian Fellowship group have developed a training program for use in transitional “foster” homes that serve those recently released from prison. In the past, the couple has taken in five ex-convicts into their own home. They also are drawing on others’ expertise in that area.
Earlier this year, the Fiskes formed The Vermont Alliance of Prison and Aftercare Ministries to begin developing a faith-based prison program. Pastor Pete said, “Similar programs have been in Texas, Florida and other states for several years and are reducing recidivism rates dramatically.”
In February, CAP received approval from Vermont Commissioner of Corrections Andrew Pallito to target the Faith Based program for the Newport prison. The steps include working with the commissioner’s staff on the logistics, raising funds, recruiting program staff and working with the prison superintendent and his staff to implement it. Another meeting about establishment of the Newport program is set for Aug. 22.
If it is approved, said Pastor Pete, “This will be a living unit for men who have volunteered to enter the program knowing that the material is taken from the Christian Bible, but can be applied to men of any faith.”
This program also has been used in the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) Prison in Kentucky, where as of August there were 453 Vermonters incarcerated. According to Pastor Pete, the chaplain there reports that of 35 graduates who have been released, only one has returned to prison for a new crime.
Those in the program can stay on as a Character Coach. Teen Challenge, another Christian program, is also working with the Fiskes’ Alliance ministry.
CAP also distributes Bibles and religious study materials within prisons. Among those are children’s Bibles, distributed with study materials to encourage reading and discussions within families. Unfortunately, however, many inmates have had their parental rights terminated. Pastor Jo helps counsel those caught in that situation.
Pastor Pete said. “Our bottom line is to increase the population of Heaven – to bring people to the Lord, disciple them, and strengthen them. We’re doing it more out of a sense of working directly for God.”
Pastor Jo says God has played a role throughout her work life. “I do all with my whole heart,” she said.
There were times while sharing stories about CAP clients that the pastors’ eyes filled with tears.
“We do this out of our love for God, because He loves us,” Pastor Pete said. “We’re able to work for the creator of the universe directly. If we can go in to the prison, and preach, teach and mentor, that’s our sense of accomplishment. Whatever they do with it after is between them and God. I’m just Pastor Pete, doing my job.”
– — –
Melissa Trombley is a former Messenger community news editor.