Philadelphia Volunteer Journals

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Reflections After Working on a Farm for Chester County Foodbank

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photo 1It’s been nearly 24 hours and my fingers, despite many hand washings, still smell like onions.

Chad and I spent three hours removing the stalks from thousands of onions at Pete’s Produce Farm in West Chester, PA, volunteering our time for the Chester County Food Bank. The thousands of onions we processed yesterday will tweak the taste buds of hungry families throughout the county. It was a pleasure serving alongside six other adults and two elementary age twin boys.

The scent of onions on my fingers is a metaphor of how volunteering is supposed to be. We shouldn’t forget the experience the day after. We need to avoid the “I did that, I can cross it off my bucket list or put it on my resume” kind of thinking that can so easily satisfy the thoughts of volunteers. People in need wake up day after day longing for relief from their despair. It’s somehow fitting if the scent of their struggle continues to emanate from the fingers of volunteers long after the experience.

Helping people in need is messy. Dirty. Sometimes outright repulsive with stench. Literally and metaphorically. Their lives can be a big mess. There are odors associated with caring for people who can’t take care of themselves physically. The incarcerated and the poor don’t live in houses whose scent can be labeled as Ocean Breeze or Apple Meadow. In some cultures, the people who need our help have open sewers right outside their front door. The smell of onions on my fingers one revolution of the earth later is a bargain!

The Chester County Food Bank does a wonderful job scheduling hundreds of volunteers to serve at the many farms they partner with across the county. Volunteers plant, weed, and harvest throughout the various seasons of the year. Individuals, nonprofits, and businesses, as well as those ordered by the court, all donate their time to help their neighbors who cannot afford to eat. A walk through their state-of the-art and amazingly clean facility in Exton, PA leaves you with the impression of an organization that knows exactly how to provide nutritious and safe meals for thousands of families – day after day.

With the money they have invested in their efficient systems, the charity could have bought thousands of processed and ready to eat meals for families from Oxford to Pottstown. However, once those meals are consumed, the food storehouses would be empty and the families will be hungry once more. Instead, they invested the funds into farming –planting seeds, cultivating the plants, and then harvesting corn, squash, eggplant, tomatoes, cabbage, lettuce, onions, and more vitamin and nutrient rich vegetables in order to feed thousands on a long-term basis.

Volunteers will get dirty. They will get pricked and scratched by thorny weeds. But that is fine – that is what volunteering is really about – getting dirty and exhausted day after day so that others can recover from adversity in life. May the onion smell on your fingers remind you for days after you volunteer that it will be a joy to do it again because the need never goes away.

Onions before we removed the stalks, along with 8 other volunteers.

Onions before we removed the stalks, along with 8 other volunteers.

Onions after we removed the stalk at Pete's Produce Farm, volunteering on behalf of Chester County Food Bank.

Onions after we removed the stalk at Pete’s Produce Farm, volunteering on behalf of Chester County Food Bank.


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An Evening at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, PA

A guard tower at  Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (photo by Emma Lee for NewsWorks)

A guard tower at Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility (photo by Emma Lee for NewsWorks – click on photo to view original source article)

You are a visitor at a church, a first time attendee at a worship service.

A regular attender walks up to you with a bright warm smile and offers you a handshake.

“Wow. That’s different” you say to yourself, accustomed to the usual chilly reception in far too many of our churches.

Another regular attender walks up and offers you a cheerful smile and a firm handshake. He might even give you a hug.

“Alright. They are asked to do that. They are greeters or ushers or something.”

Five attenders greet you warmly. Then 10. 15. 35. 50. You are made to feel in just a few moments like these are all your dear friends and family, not strangers who you’ve never set eyes on before.

What are these people on?

Well, at the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility in Philadelphia, home to nearly 3,000 male prisoners on the date of our visit, February 25, 2014, you can rule out drugs or alcohol. These people were high on – Jesus Christ!

In all my years of attending church, I have never witnessed a room more full of love for Christ. I’m guessing I’ve been a participant in over 2,000 church services over the last fifty years. Independent. Baptist. Presbyterian. United Methodist. Pentecostal. I’ve never witnessed such a high percentage of the worshipers attending a service so truly joyous about the freedom Christ has brought to them.

I am told there are men in this prison awaiting trial for serious crime, such as murder. Of course, my son Chad and I, guests at the invitation of Bob Sofronski of Christian Life Prison and Recovery Ministry, were told not to ask the men about the charges against them. However, why would we even if we could? They were not downcast. There was genuine light in their eyes, a peace that was beyond understanding. This was a celebration of faith and hope, not a somber accounting of their crimes. During the 90 minute Tuesday evening church service in the chapel, led by Bob and four other men on our team, with nearly every seat occupied by a man in a prison-issued blue shirt and with many more standing, I observed men in deep prayer and I listened to the men shout their praises for Christ. When Bob asked for prayer requests, hands went up like dozens of balloons released on a windy summer day.

When the service was over, the hugs and handshakes resumed as the men, many of whom likely had gang tatoos on their arms and face, emptied from the room, returning to their cells. The goodbyes Chad and I received were as friendly as the greetings we had enjoyed earlier in the evening. One bearded young man asked my son and I to pray for the people of Maldives, a country where worshipping Christ is illegal. His thoughts were on others in need, matching the tone of the prayer requests the prisoners had shared.

In an amazing twist of irony, I felt extraordinarily safe in this group of men – physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I could have left my son in that room and known he would have been very safe; not because of the guards but because of the hearts of the men in the room.

I understand. Many of these men have a long road ahead of them. They await their fate in court. Some may have years of imprisonment ahead of them. Others will be challenged to return to the lifestyle that led them to incarceration when they are released. Many will face time in recovery houses, where they must be devoted to the good changes they professed in the service tonight.

A dear female friend of mine summed up what I experienced tonight very well:

When people have no freedom, they really appreciate freedom in Christ. When all is stripped away, we have nowhere else to turn.

Tonight, it became very apparent to me that something is really missing in our churches. We don’t truly appreciate the freedoms we have in Christ. Hence, we are the ones truly imprisoned – by worries, anxieties, guilt, but most of all pride. We’ve got something to lose – our status and social standing. It scares us to death! It turns us chilly when visitor’s trespass across the threshold of our church doors each Sunday.

How can we love others when we are imprisoned by so much pride? May the prisoners teach us all that humility is the source of freedom that can turn our hearts warm with love for God and love for others.


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A Love Found Within Prison Walls

The Holy Spirit is present in prisons.

Yes, He absolutely is.

I had few expectations for tonight (the night my father and I were scheduled to attend a Worship Service, inside a prison in Philadelphia) – mainly because I hadn’t a clue to even dream up what my expectations should have been. I haven’t been to jail before, and I’ve been fortunate enough to never have any of my friends go there. To me, jail is what I’ve seen on television; what I’ve watched in movies. Not the experience I actually had a few hours ago.

Showing up around 7:30 pm, my father and I met with a group of leaders outside the prison and setup ground rules for our time inside. Understandably, phones weren’t allowed, nor anything else you could imagine being useful to a prisoner. Oddly enough, even my clothing was limited. I was told that if I chose to take my jacket inside, I had to keep it on the entire time, no matter how hot I might get. Consequently, I went in with very little on me, with just my driver’s license in my right jean pocket. To be honest, it was quite freeing, ironically; being in public and told that I can’t have my phone and wallet any closer than a couple hundred yards from me.

After being searched, we were all escorted through the prison and, though there could have been in other parts of the building, I heard no threats or the presence of the kind of sadistic laughter you might find in a Batman cartoon when the superhero drops The Joker or Two-Face off at Arkham Asylum. The first person in a blue jumpsuit that I met eye-to-eye actually came up to me and said, “God bless you.” To be honest, it caught me off-guard. But taking two more steps around the corner, I realized I had come to a familiar face: the body of Christ.

“God bless you,” I must have received it with a handshake about a 100 times. Seventy to eighty prisoners attended the Worship Service that night and nearly all of them came up to my father and me to welcome us into their congregation. We were supposed to greet the prisoners, but they ended up more so greeting us. It felt like Church – heck, it almost felt better than Church outside of prison, considering the genuineness you could see on their faces. They were honestly happy to see us. And you know what? It felt like home.

Why did it feel like home? It was a place of brokenness, of vulnerability – a place where you can’t hide from your flaws, because your very clothing reveals your past. When prayer requests were asked for, about 20 men immediately shouted out their heart’s desires – for themselves, for their kids, for their friends, and for their fellow inmates. They didn’t care about social cues or take the time to conclude whether or not their request was worth sharing. Their humility made them fearless. And they worshipped in the same way. And through their vulnerability, I felt invigorated.

You might think God wouldn’t care to touch the hearts of those justifiably imprisoned. But that’s not who He is. He loves the inmate equally. It was clear that despite their crimes, these men were being turned into people of love and kindness. Men who God plans to use one day, to show love to those who think they are past grace, outside the prison walls. To use the prisoner to set free “the free.”

God can plant his garden anywhere: whether in fresh soil in an open field, or through a flower that sprouts up from a small crack in the sidewalk.

Tonight, the speaker was a former drug addict who said he once only cared about himself, his drugs, and the means to his drugs. A man who used to hurt others for the sake of his addiction.  Completely empty, he was ready to run in front of a train near his house, but he got a phone call from his brother (who he hadn’t talked to in months) as the train came into sight, and he turned around and gave life one last try. Christ has been transforming him ever since. By the way, he forgot he had placed his cellphone in his pocket that day.

I can’t help but consider how these men would have treated me years or mere months ago, versus what I saw of them just now.

Don’t ever look upon yourself or another and believe you cannot be loved. There is no restriction on grace. Take joy in that prisoners are being taught how to love by the One who made them.


Read Charles Wagner’s blog article about the experience.



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