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Church offers WELCOMEBACKpacks to those leaving prison

Courtesy photo.
Courtesy photo.
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On Sunday, March 2, 2022, the members of St. Matthew’s UMC in Acton, MA, offered a blessing for 48 WELCOMEBACKpacks.

St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church is a part of the New England Annual Conference.

These special backpacks are filled with items to support the 40 men and eight women who will receive them as they begin their journey out of prison and back into community life.

Betsy Comstock is a member of the Mission Outreach and Advocacy Team at St. Matthew’s.

“I like the idea that we put all the backpacks at the front of the sanctuary, and they're blessed on their way out,” she said. “It makes more obvious to everybody that what we're doing is holy and sacred.”

St. Matthew’s is not far from the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, and for many years has been in ministry with the nonprofit organization Concord Prison Outreach (CPO), “a coalition of individuals and faith communities committed to helping people who are incarcerated build better lives for themselves and their families.”

“Several [congregation members], over the years, have worked our volunteered there, so we felt a connection to them,” said Comstock of CPO.

The church has been a supporter of CPO’s Holiday Gift Bag program, and in 2020, when they started the WELCOMEBACKpack program, St. Matthew’s participated by filling 30 backpacks.

“We had, in the fairly recent past, been studying prison reform and justice issues around the prison system and so forth, so it felt like a good match,” Comstock said.

“And we got all done [creating the backpacks] we said, ‘Well, that was pretty easy,’ so we could have done more, so this so this year we did 48.”

WELCOMEBACKpacks are filled with items suggested by the Department of Corrections that will be useful for those who come out of prison without a permanent home to go to.

Items include toiletries, a water bottle, a tablet and pen, a book (one of two from which they can choose), and COVID masks, among other items, as well as a special addition from the church: The church’s prayer shawl ministry offered a hand-knit hat for each backpack; “that was our little extra,” Comstock said.

There are letters that go into the backpacks from CPO and the Department of Corrections wishing the recipients well. “And, in our case we've we fold those letters inside what we call a dove card from St. Matthew’s that gives our person packing a chance to sign their name,” Comstock said.

The outreach team raised $1,000 at the church’s annual holiday Festival of Sharing to buy the backpacks and water bottles; the team also purchased the books. Members of the congregation donated the other items and volunteered to pack the bags.

“It was a chance to do something that wasn't just donating money; it was an active project that kids could do, not just adults,” Comstock said, adding, “It was something we felt we could do safely during the pandemic.”

“[This is] a population that we don't typically serve in other ways, and yet we know that there they are, heading off to a new phase in their life,” Comstock said. “You know, we do lots of food ministry and immigration ministry and things of that nature, but this is appealing because it reminds us of a different set of people with different needs.”

New England Annual Conference website

This story represents how United Methodist local churches through their Annual Conferences are living as Vital Congregations. A vital congregation is the body of Christ making and engaging disciples for the transformation of the world. Vital congregations are shaped by and witnessed through four focus areas: calling and shaping principled Christian leaders; creating and sustaining new places for new people; ministries with poor people and communities; and abundant health for all.

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