For our brothers and sisters in prison, there is no greater need than having a consistent, loving, Christian presence in their lives. However, providing this kind of long-term relationship is not easy to achieve in prison.
Many prisons are in very rural places, with the closest Orthodox church being hours away. Most Orthodox clergy are hard pressed to be able to drive such a distance every month, let alone every week, to offer the Sacraments and spiritual care. People in prisons are often transferred to different facilities around a state or even the country, making it extra difficult to maintain visitation from a priest they may get to know. Moreover, it is rare to have concentrations of more than a handful of Orthodox prisoners in any correctional facility. As a result, accommodating the religious practice of Orthodox Christians is low on the list of priorities for chaplains. Too often, our incarcerated Orthodox brothers and sisters are left not knowing how to receive visitation from a priest or how to stay in contact with the Church.
How do we keep those in prison connected to the Church and vice versa?
Enter OCPM’s team of Prison Relationship Managers. These full-time staff members are each committed to a set caseload of Orthodox or inquiring people in prison for the duration of that person’s sentence and after his or her release. This means an Orthodox Christian in prison has a years-long relationship with someone from OCPM who is solely committed to maintaining their connection to the Church and helping their spiritual growth. The Prison Relationship Managers not only connect with people personally through letters, emails, phone calls, and in-person visitation, they also facilitate and coach Orthodox clergy and lay volunteers for face-to-face visitation.
FR. MICHAEL PEJOVIC and TOBY JOHN, PRMs
Meet our new Prisoner Relationship Managers. Toby John has served prisoners since Feband Fr. Michael will begin connecting prisoners to parishes in August 2023.
OCPM: What was your background in ministry and/or the Church before you came to OCPM?
FMP: My first experience of ministry in a prison setting was during the second year of Saint Tikhon’s Seminary, as a part of a field education class. Archpriest John Kowalczyk led the course, and we visited S.C.I. Waymart for a semester. After completing the field education class, I decided to continue visiting S.C.I. Waymart until I graduated. I was very moved by the stories of inmates and the works of the Holy Spirit in prison, so I decided to write my thesis based on my experience in a prison setting. On September 19th, 2021, I was ordained to the Holy Priesthood and given to the Church of the Holy Spirit in Wantage, Nj, where I still serve.
TJ: I am a member of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. Throughout my life in the Church, I have felt called to serve, which led me to attend St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where I earned my Masters in Divinity. Afterwards, I was ordained as a subdeacon and served as the Youth Minister at St. Gregorios Orthodox Church in Houston, Texas.
OCPM: What made you first consider becoming a Prison Relationship Manager?
FMP: My experience in the prison truly opened my eyes to the hardships inmates are struggling with. From that day on, the need to minister to the inmates was formed in my heart. After seminary, the wish to be involved and help those in prisons never left me.
TJ: I found myself intrigued about this after reading about the impactful work of Fr. Stephen Powley. At the time I heard about a job opening, I was in my last semester completing my master’s program in Social Work. The job posting showed me a perfect blend of social work and ministry combined into one fulfilling role.
OCPM: What do you hope for your role at OCPM? What aspirations do you have for the future of this ministry?
FMP: I am incredibly honored and privileged to call myself a member of the OCPM team. My only hope is to serve incarcerated people to the best of my abilities. While being in the S.C.I. Waymart, I initially thought I was a teacher but soon realized I learned more from them than they did from me. Through their brokenness, I realized my own brokenness. However, this broken state allows God’s light to come in and restore the image of Christ in us. I saw prison as a type of Church and the incarcerated persons as part of the congregation where the community works together in their path toward salvation. That being said, I only hope that I can serve that congregation as well as I serve the congregation in the Holy Spirit Orthodox Church.
TJ: I hope that my role will help those incarcerated feel connected to the Church. We are all meant for relationships and community, regardless of whether we are married or celibate. And how much more do those who are incarcerated need a community? They find themselves in what can be considered the lowest points in their lives. By offering correspondence, spiritual books, and connecting them with nearby clergy and churches, we provide them with a community to hold onto during these challenging times.
Want an even more inside look at the work of our PRM team? Check out our four-part blog series, “The Prison Journal of Toby John,” here.