2017-03-23 / Faith Community

Retired Reverend Remains Active

By James Merolla

The advice in prison ministry is no different than what holds true in life without bars – don’t worry about next year or next week, just do the next right thing. When William Ogburn, curate at St. Paul’s in Wickford, said these words, he added that volunteers were needed for a prison ministry. That prompted retired Rev. Stephanie Shoemaker of Newport to respond.

“I wasn’t giving anything to the community and I thought, ‘This is something I would like to do,’” she said. “When he said, ‘Don’t worry about the rest of your life, just do the next right thing,’ it resonated with me.”

Shoemaker has served in some capacity in many churches in the Aquidneck Island area. She began in 1991 as a deacon at St. Matthew’s Church in Jamestown, where she extended her outreach across the state through a program that identified and served battered women. She was ordained into the priesthood after graduating from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge in 1996.

Through the years, she has served as associate rector at St. Columba’s Chapel in Middletown; rector at the Chapel of St. John the Divine in Saunderstown; priest-in-charge at Emmanuel Church in Newport; chaplain to the retired clergy community in Rhode Island; and priest-in-charge at St. Matthew and St. Mark churches. She is currently serving as associate rector at St. Mary’s Church in Portsmouth.

During this time, she also volunteered through the Amazing Grace prison ministry to lead worship and teach classes in minimum security at adult correctional institutions.

Amazing Grace is an outgrowth of the Blessing Way, formed by Joyce Pennfield of St. Philip and St. Andrew churches in Providence. “[Pennfield] runs a transitional house for felons coming out of prison. They stay there for three months. It’s not a halfway house,” said Shoemaker. “There is a good rate of integrating back into society. It gives a person an opportunity to get on their feet and get a job, although it’s difficult to procure one.”

The effort is separate from the Newport-based Turning Around Ministries (TAM), a community outreach program that offers aftercare services to the previously incarcerated. TAM has helped nearly 300 people since 2005 by offering a holistic approach to help clients address such issues as employment, education, housing, food, clothing, substance abuse and personal development. While Amazing Grace visits prisoners at the ACI, TAM provides guidance following their release.

Pennfield has joined Shoemaker and other volunteers at Amazing Grace. One such volunteer is Rev. Jackie Kirby, associate chaplain of St. George’s School in Middletown. “We do bible study for women, usually two-to-seven in a group. I have been surprised by how open they are in discussing their struggles, by how fulfilling the ministry is,” she said.

The chaplaincy travels in pairs, five to a group, up to three times a month.

“It is such an honor to be with them and listen to their stories,” said Kirby. “It also is very moving [to see] how much they help each other and gain strength and encouragement in the group. It feels like sacred ground every time.”

Shoemaker agreed. “It’s really sacred ground. It’s like when you are dealing with the dying, or anybody whose heart is right there, any vulnerable person, if you listen to what they have to say, they are giving you a gift,” she said. “This is a privilege. There’s a draw. It’s a calling.”

There is no set format to the visits. It can be conversational, praying or saying the Eucharist.

“It’s very loose; what is needed at the moment. You feel out the room and see what they want to do,” Shoemaker said. “A lot of the men come by word of mouth and from the classes that we teach. Someone tells someone else and that’s how it builds. Once they get to know you, they start coming.”

It is also ephemeral. Some of the incarcerated are there for just 30, 60 or 90 days before moving on, which limits the spiritual exposure.

“The whole thing boils down to the least, the last and the lost,” she said. “It’s very Biblical. It’s what you do.”

There is a two-year commitment for volunteers. Anyone interested should contact Rev. Shoemaker at Revshoe@aol.com.

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