A Day with Ministry on the Margins

A Day with Ministry on the Margins

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to befriend someone who had spent time in prison? I have sometimes heard of others doing “prison ministry” and was tempted to volunteer, but it always seemed I was too busy.

During the summer of 2019, my schedule loosened up. I had the privilege of being on Sabbatical at Annunciation Monastery in Bismarck, North Dakota. While there as exploring the arts, I inquired about also having an experience volunteering with S. Kathleen Atkinson OSB, one of the founders of Ministry on the Margins.

Committed to Those Who Fall through the Cracks

I have long respected Ministry on the Margins, an ecumenical network that is committed to those prisoners who fall through the cracks during times of transition. They are especially attentive to the homeless, the unemployed, and those making their way back into society after prison.  They have an 90-95 volunteers each week, which gives you some sense of how many people they can serve!

I find S. Kathleen to be an incredibly creative manager.  She invited me to work with her team of volunteers, just so I could experience a day in the ministry I’d always heard about. One of the “Live-in Volunteers” from Annunciation Monastery and I attended Morning Prayer with the monastic community and then drove down to the center to get our assignments.

The doors open at 9:30, so there wasn’t much time to prepare the tables for breakfast. When we arrived, S. Kathleen was already busy making delicious smelling sloppy joes. We set the tables with six placemats, silverware, and dishes filled with fresh buns and cookies.

Breakfast, Food, and Clothes

Some volunteers were in the next rooms over, getting shelves ready for customers to pick out food. Others were getting the donated clothes in order by type and size for the guests soon to arrive.

With fifteen minutes to spare, S. Kathleen called us all into the dining room. She reminded us that our mission was to serve Christ in each person who was about to walk through the door. She led us in prayer and affirmed our hospitality assignments. I was given a clipboard to record the names and contact information for anyone who wanted more than just breakfast. S. Kathleen stationed me at the front door, ready to welcome each person. “Good morning,” I was to say. “Thank you for coming. What would you like today – a hot meal, food for the week, or some new clothes?”

If they wanted food for the week and clothes, I passed their names and contact information to the person managing that area. All wanted to eat a hot breakfast. Most wanted food for the week and some clothes. I turned the request slip in to the lady at the desk who handles the records for reporting to the federal government, regional food bank, and donors.

They were served breakfast and visited with other guests until their name was called to get food or clothing, at which point a volunteer helped each person pick out what she\he could use. I noticed a lovely spirit of friendship in the room. Most of the 130 people who came arrived within the very first hour. They were kind to each other and so appreciative of the services provided by Ministry on the Margins.

In addition to my hospitality assignment, I walked around with a cup of coffee and asked guests if I could sit at their tables and visit. I was delighted at how eager they were to share their story of life on the street. Some had to live on the street stealing food to survive since childhood. They were from families that just did not have enough food for all the children. I just began to hear one story, yet another person came to the door needing to be welcomed. Most were about 40-60 years old. At least half appeared to be Native American. All came hungry!

Just before noon, we began directing the guests to the next place where they could find food, clothing, or other resources. When all were served and we had all our service areas back in order, we gathered to thank God for the Christ visible in each guest. We debriefed with Sr. Kathleen any person or situation that may need special attention. That made a morning with Ministry on the Margins.

Stay Out of Jail Supper Club

But there was more to the day. In addition to a coffee house with food and clothing pantry, Ministry on the Margins presents five spiritual sessions each week at the Men’s State Penitentiary. Then, as part of the prison re-entry program, they also host after-release family support groups, called “Celebrate Recovery” and the weekly “Stay Out of Jail Super Club.” It was the latter form of prison ministry I was able to experience, as well.

During Supper Club, they offer a meal, fellowship, plus a speaker or social activity that somehow responds to the unique re-entry needs of the 35-40 attendees. This was a much younger group of people than the morning, still in a struggle to create a new life-style for themselves and appreciating others who were committed to the same goals.

Sister Kathleen had prepared tacos when we arrived and got our assignments. I was assigned to serve food and then call Bingo, adding in a couple ice-breakers to encourage discussions at the table.  Wow, what a hungry group of young men, so happy to be there ready to play. The first ice-breaker I offered was, “What do you like best about these gatherings? The answers ranged from food, to get to see other friends here, to sharing our stories, and even to getting new hope for the week.

The second ice-breaker proved a wake up call for me. I asked them to share at the table what was their favorite game as a child. Most did not have any, some even saying, “We did not have any fun as a family.” While I was still adjusting to what that might mean, I learned something else. I had asked a volunteer to help someone who looked about 16 years old. She went over to him and he would not let her see his card. He was willing to talk about being back on the street looking for a job, but he seemed ashamed that he did not know the letters or the numbers. He had just been pretending to play. By the end of the night, S. Kathleen had connected him with some services and he returned the kindness with huge hug and tears in his eyes. That made an evening with Ministry on the Margins.

Come and Hear

It was a spiritually rich experience to volunteer and I am delighted S. Kathleen will be coming to the Benedictine Center of St. Paul’s Monastery to talk about Radical Hospitality. I invite you to come and hear powerful stories from a great woman with such rich experience and enthusiasm. Her insights will transform how you see God’s people and the world we all share.


Learn more about Kathleen Atkinson and her upcoming events Feb. 27 thru Mar. 1, as well as other opportunities to learn and practice Benedictine spirituality.

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