New Beginnings’ Story
The New Beginnings ministry began as New Beginnings Lutheran (NBL) in 1998 when Volunteer Services Administrator, Bill Potter, saw a need for mainline denomination chaplains in the Colorado Department of Corrections. He contacted the Rev. Ed Nesselhuf of Prison Congregations of America, a program sponsored by Lutheran churches. Together, they began the process of initiating such a worshipping community inside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility.
The program they put together was presented to and approved by both Major Scott Hall and Associate Warden Noble Wallace. The search began immediately for a Lutheran or Episcopal minister to serve as a chaplain inside the walls of the facility, as well as pastor of the worshipping community of New Beginnings. The Rev. Steve Cox was accepted and trained, and began service at the end of 1999.
Rev. Cox served for approximately two years. Part of the program was to involve members of area congregations in the services so they might understand the spiritual needs of offenders. As visitors came in, worshipped alongside the women of New Beginnings, and then returned to their congregations on the outside, the visitors carried a message back with them of their profound experience of thirst for the Word and the presence of the Holy Spirit behind enclosed walls. The Department of Corrections welcomed New Beginnings and her visitors who served as a public relations tool.
After two years, Rev. Cox accepted a call to a parish on the outside. A Lutheran seminary student covered the services for a few months. The Rev. Merrie Need, an Episcopal Minister, began in mid-2002. She served part-time for two years. While there, she began the Houses of Healing Forgiveness Class to many inmates with great success. She also built affiliations with several Episcopal churches.
Upon Rev. Need’s departure to a fulltime call, Georgia Van Housen, a diaconal candidate in the Rocky Mountain Synod of the ELCA, served as interim lay minister to maintain the Bible Study, Forgiveness Class, and worship services until a new minister could be called.
In August, 2004, the Rev. Emily Cardin was called by the Rocky Mountain Synod to serve New Beginnings. Rev. Cardin continued the work begun by Rev. Cox, Rev. Need, and Georgia Van Housen—maintaining the weekly Bible Studies, weekly worship services, and the Forgiveness Classes. She also began what continues to be a thriving card ministry.
Worship services were both rich and bare. The altar was stark and the Spirit abounded. Christmas Eve, 2004, brought many firsts. The prison allowed a single lighted candle and pewter cross to be placed on the altar. Over 90 women attended the Christmas Eve service. The following Ash Wednesday, the first imposition of ashes took place in the prison as Rev. Cardin answered the question of many women, “Just what is Ash Wednesday anyway?” Rev. Cardin served New Beginnings as pastor until February of 2013, expanding the ministry on the inside and raising awareness on the outside for nine years before deciding it was time to move on.
The Rev. Mark Meyer served as interim pastor of New Beginnings while the Steering Committee conducted a search and call process. Once again, continuity was wonderfully managed under the leadership of an interim.
In July of 2013, Terry Schjang was called as the pastor of New Beginnings Worshipping Community. Rev. Terry Schjang serves as chaplain to the inmate population of Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, and to the staff as needs arise. She continues the long tradition of the ministry—leading weekly Bible Study, teaching a new form of Forgiveness Classes, one on one pastoral care meetings, and picking up donated cards from many supporters around the Denver and Boulder areas as they are donated to the prison for what has become a thriving New Beginnings ministry of approximately 40,000 gifted cards to inmates each year.
New to the ministry in the past year are Liturgical Dance Workshops, liturgical dance during worship, and monologues of Biblical figures that parishioners offer during worship as an expression of their faith journey. Over thirty per-cent of the inmate population is Hispanic. Thus, also new to the ministry this year is a bi-monthly bilingual service. We continue to grow.
New Beginnings Worshipping Community continues to be at the heart of many women’s weekly journey inside the prison.
“On Friday evenings I experience the love and support of an intimate worshipping community. There is joy. There is continuity. I feel safe as the pastor prays over us, we all share our understanding of the Word she brings to us, and we know we will be fed to go another week. I give thanks. All is well with my soul.”
Thanks to the generosity of our friends on the outside, we now have hand-made paraments for every season. There is a nativity set from Madagascar, Easter Decorations made by children of a Lutheran Daycare Center, and red hearts for Valentine/Pentecost from a neighborhood mission congregation.
New Beginnings Worshipping Community continues to be there with the Word, the Eucharist, and the presence of a pastor on the premises. We continue to raise awareness everywhere we can—inviting guests to come visit so they may be blessed with the Spirit in our midst, and calling for support from those who hear and see us so that this vital ministry may continue. Despite the challenges of worship inside a prison, all is well with our souls.
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…for I was in prison and you visited me.”
(Gospel of our Lord, Matthew 25:34-36)