calendar February 4, 2013 in Congregations

Making Release a Reality

Photo by Flickr user wallyg under Creative Commons license.

All Christians are called to proclaim release to captives. Philadelphia’s Living Gospel Ministries lives out this charge by helping ease the transition for some people returning to the community from incarceration.

“In Philadelphia, at least 35,000 persons return from prison every year,” says Linda Manson, the mission developer of Living Gospel, our newest synodically authorized worshipping community. Living Gospel touches a few of those returnees with an experience of God’s grace, life skills training and help with their job search.

As a long-time servant of people involved with the criminal justice system, as a professional re-entry counselor and a volunteer leading prison Bible studies, Manson knows the challenges faced by the formerly incarcerated. After many years as a volunteer visitor, she ran a re-entry program for the Pennsylvania Prison Society for six years. (See Manson’s call story below.)

“In prison, you don’t make any decisions for yourself,” she says, and the structure atrophies self-management skills like keeping a work schedule and keeping appointments with probation officers. The record of a conviction can keep a person from a job, or a living wage, for years after release. Unless these challenges are addressed, a person can be sent back to prison for “technical violations,” such as failing to appear to a probation officer, even if they don’t commit another crime.

Through Living Gospel, Manson is working to replace this negative cycle with a virtuous one, showing the formerly incarcerated God’s grace and mercy while helping them improve basic life skills and prepare for employment.

“Linda has always felt a call to work with persons who have experienced the prison system adversely,” says the Rev. Patricia Davenport, director of evangelical mission for the synod.


Nationwide, one of every 34 Americans is connected with the criminal justice system, either incarcerated now or as a parolee or on probation. Among African Americans the statistic is one in eight, and it 25 percent among African American males. The numbers in Philadelphia are even higher, Manson says.

Working out of a donated office at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in Mount Airy, Manson works individually with former prisoners and their families. She coaches people to keep a regular schedule without the discipline of the corrections system; teaches them to navigate areas of life that have changed since they were imprisoned, such as public transit; and helps them get training for skills needed for todays working world. But mostly, she loves them in God’s name.

Many appreciate church visitors in prison and even come to faith, but most “don’t have a strong faith background,” Manson says.

“We talk about how you can see God active in the world today even with all the craziness, and they walk away saying, ‘Yeah, God is with me,’” she says. “It’s wonderful when you can help someone see how God is working in their life, despite their circumstances.”


Manson was approved as a mission developer last fall, and the Synod Council authorized Living Gospel’s ministry in December, 2012. Manson is looking forward to gathering those she works with for Bible study this spring, with the goal of having some form of worshipping group later this year.

“I tell people, praying is wonderful for yourself, but you need to be in community. Being with people who are of the same mind and seeking the same thing is really important” for the journey, she says.

Part of Living Gospel’s mission is calling the church to fuller inclusion of people who are still connected with the criminal justice system.

“Often they are not welcome in the church. Their experience is, its fine for me to come visit you, but once you’re out I’d prefer you stay far away from me.”

“Many come to an understanding of grace” in prison, Davenport says. “Then they come out and go to houses of worship and don’t experience it.”

By relating and worshipping in a community where they are accepted as they are, Manson believes those she serves will carry their identity as a child of God into environments that are less welcoming. “Part of the hope is that people could get to the place where they could go back to the family church.”


This “church without walls” is an outgrowth of The Welcome Church, an ELCA mission and ecumenical outreach to persons experiencing homelessness in Center City.

“The two go hand in hand,” says Davenport. “Many homeless were in the system” at some point.

Further in the future, Manson hopes to find a permanent location with a classroom where she can teach in group workshops. This will help Living Gospel to leverage its efforts to reach more people while providing “the stability and consistency that this population needs,” she says. She also hopes to become an advocate within the prison system for making such connections with inmates six months or so before release.

Right now, “You get released today, and tomorrow you’re supposed to go to a probation officer, secure housing and get a job,” she says.

“I’m so happy to be doing this work,” Manson says. “It’s just a continuation of work I’ve been doing a long time, but the piece that was always missing was doing it in a faith-based environment.”

“God has laid this on my heart. For every person I touch, if I can make a difference, they will go on to make a difference. And the cycle continues.”


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“I am finally doing what I should be doing.”


Linda Manson’s journey to ministry is proof of God’s ability to bring the right pieces together, in God’s time.

mansonRaised in the Baptist tradition, her father, grandfather and uncles were all ministers. Yet she became disenchanted with what she was hearing in church. “The more I read the Bible on my own I felt that the God I met in the Bible wasn’t the God I met on Sunday morning,” she says.

Then she visited a Lutheran congregation. “I heard the pastor talk about grace and mercy. I had never heard that.”

All the while the idea of prison ministry “was tugging on my heart,” kindled by a relative “who lived a lot of life in and out of incarceration,” she says. “I remember that when I talked with him he would say how much the visits from the churches meant to him.”

When she did not find a congregation with this ministry, she volunteered on her own in Philadelphia county and state prisons, visiting once or twice a week, holding Bible study and praying with inmates. This led to the opportunity, in 2003, to take a position with the Pennsylvania Prison Society heading a program to help prisoners re-entering society. But after six years of being in the prisons nearly every day, Manson knew she needed a change, and took a job in the admissions office at LTSP.

“This was supposed to have been my cruise into retirement,” she says with a laugh. “I thought I would work for a while and continue with my volunteering. When I was sitting at the admissions desk and I was privileged to hear other people’s call stories, began to become clear to me where all of my life had been leading.”

At church and in her volunteer work, “people had held up my gifts to me, but I didn’t want to acknowledge them,” she said. But God had other plans. Manson, a member of St. Michael’s in Germantown, enrolled in seminary, and soon was tapped for the task force that drafted the ELCA’s proposed social statement on criminal justice. Next, the synod recognized the connection between her gifts and the community’s need. The ELCA agreed, and she was raised up as Living Gospel’s lay mission developer while completing the candidacy process.

She feels “embraced” in the Lutheran tradition, even as the institution grapples with how it’s OK for missions like Living Gospel to question and to look different as a congregation.

“There are frustrations and ‘hallelujah!’ moments,” she says. “The thing that keeps me going every day is that I get up and I feel that I am finally doing what I should be doing.”