The Rector of Trinity Church Wall Street traveled to Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, NY for a Holy Week visit with some of the men incarcerated there, and to seek their input on Trinity’s ministry.
The Rev. Dr. William Lupfer goes to the maximum-security prison each year to meet with students working toward their Master of Professional Studies degree, offered by New York Theological Seminary (NYTS) and funded by Trinity.
Dr. Lupfer has visited the class every year since he became the 18th Rector of Trinity Church Wall Street in 2015. He often refers to prison visitation, which he began as a young priest, as a defining influence on his ministry.
On his April 15th visit, Dr. Lupfer asked the twelve students for their ideas on how to address one of Trinity’s strategic initiatives.
“Racism in America is a huge scar,” Dr. Lupfer told the students. “We’re looking at racial justice through the lens of mass incarceration.”
The students, two-thirds of whom come from communities of color and most of whom have been incarcerated from ten to as many as 36 years, shared their insights, with critiques on rehabilitation, parole reform, and re-entry.
“We need parole reform. No matter how much education you strive to get inside, it’s like a sword of Damocles hanging over your head—you were never going home.”
“If we want to rehabilitate people, why don’t we think of ways for that to happen in their community as opposed to shipping them across the state?”
“When you’re released, you need a place to live, and you could also get a job and a church in the same community to keep you accountable—it’s like a package.”
Dr. Lupfer noted that Trinity always relies on partners for guidance.
“You guys know the ropes; you know what people need. We have a lot of brain power here,” Dr. Lupfer said.
Accompanying the Rector to Sing Sing were seven members of Trinity’s community, and all joined in a class taught by NYTS Dean, Dr. Efrain Agosto, focused on how the letters of St. Paul address conflict.
Front row: Dr. Lupfer, the Rev. Winnie Varghese, Roz Hall, Susan Shah. Back row: James Melchiorre, the Rev. Benjamin Musoke-Lubega, the Rev. Phillip Jackson, and Neill Coleman.
Susan Shah, Trinity’s new Managing Director of Racial Justice, who has worked for twelve years on issues related to mass incarceration, noticed a difference in atmosphere inside the classroom.
“It was so powerful to hear from men behind bars when they were in an environment that draws on their strengths,” Shah said. “In my many visits to jails and prisons, I often saw men living in an environment that is designed to debilitate and restrain rather than replenish and restore.”
Trinity parishioner Roz Hall offered advice to the students on the importance of family members in the efforts for reform, based on her own experience with the congregation’s Task Force Against Racism and its Prison Ministry group.
“This work has to include everybody,” Hall said. “How many of your family members are involved, and know what’s going on?”
The Trinity visitors stopped by the prison’s Chapel of the Redeemer, where Protestant worship services are held, with its stained-glass windows created by incarcerated workers.
Dr. Lupfer also took a moment in the prison parking lot to pray both for and with Michael Capra, the prison’s superintendent, and ended his session with a prayer, along with a pledge to remember the students in Trinity’s ministry.
“We’re trying to change public policy,” Dr. Lupfer said. “We want to meet you where you are; we want to be a voice for you.”