Worshiping Communities July 27, 2020
Prison congregation goes from no services to nine socially-distanced services each week
by the Rev. Lane Brubaker, Hagar’s Community Church | Special to Presbyterian News Service
The Rev. Lane Brubaker
Editor’s note: The Rev. Lane Brubaker is founding pastor of Hagar’s Community Church, a 1001 New Worshiping Community of Olympia Presbytery established at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in 2018. WCCW is the largest women’s correctional facility in Washington state. Previously the Revs. Lane and Crawford Brubaker planted Okra Abbey, a worshiping community established by the Presbytery of South Louisiana in New Orleans, where Lane also served as the Young Adult Volunteer program site coordinator. The following is shared from her blog with permission.
OLYMPIA, Washington — I have sat down to write this blog almost a hundred times. Each time I have given up after a couple of minutes.
As I’m sure you can relate, each day of this pandemic has been met by a roller coaster of emotions. I feel that I’m never quite catching up to myself to have a somewhat processed perspective on how rapidly life is changing.
My mind keeps coming back to a passage of Scripture where Job says, “God gives and God takes away” (Job 1:21). Job’s reality has never been more true. In one week’s time, I experienced how quickly everything can be taken away.
For the last year and half, I have been working to establish and develop Hagar’s Community Church, a community of beloved exiles at the Washington Corrections Center for Women (WCCW). All of my energy has been focused on creating rhythms and practices that this new congregation can live into. Two core pillars of the community pre-pandemic were gathering for worship every Saturday as one large body of faith and sharing communion during that service. From one Saturday to the next, these pillars crumbled due to the pandemic and a whole new reality is being established.
March 7 was the last large weekly worship service with the women of Hagar’s Community Church before the COVID-19 health crisis. The following week everything started changing — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee restricted groups to remain under 50 people, and everyone began to retreat into their homes to shelter in place and social distance.
On March 12, I received notification from the WCCW that all programming had been cancelled and I would be notified when I could return. I was permitted by the prison to send worship resources to the women, but I had no communication with any of my congregants. I had no idea how long the separation would last. My biggest fear was being shut out for the remainder of the year.
The prayer station inside the Brubaker home. (Photo by Lane Brubaker)
Prayer became a staple for me. I created in my living room a prayer station full of candles. This became a place to channel all of my worries, fears and hopes. I also reached out to the community of people who support and love Hagar’s Community Church to ask them to join me in prayer.
Through the worship resources I sent to my congregants, I asked the women to join me in praying every day at 5 p.m. Those of us on the outside began virtually meeting on Saturdays at 5 p.m. to pray for all the women incarcerated at the WCCW and for other concerns.
The evening of March 25 I was feeling incredibly hopeless — I had heard nothing from the WCCW and so, in a quiet moment of desperation, I lit every candle at my prayer station. Each candle represented a prayer for Hagar’s Community Church — a prayer that I would get a sign from God about the future. The next morning, God answered my prayers through an email from the WCCW. After a two-week quarantine, there were no cases of COVID-19 in the facility and the administration wanted to discuss how to have “some” religious programming.
The administration and I came up with a strategy to give the maximum number of women at the WCCW the opportunity to attend worship while maintaining safety and social distancing. I would hold one worship service per living unit or a total of nine services —three each day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
This nine-services-a-week schedule began on April 3, the weekend of Palm Sunday, and we have been in this routine since. I was also given permission to do rounds on all the units, which means that I am able to be a pastoral support to all of my congregation.
In-person worship with rules for social distancing means that everything feels a bit strange. To begin with, each group is on the small side (5-20 people). All of us are wearing masks at all times, while also maintaining six feet of distance from one another. Singing is not allowed — meaning praise and worship is off limits. It is my experience that it is impossible to preach with a mask on. It is hard to breathe and awkward to communicate effectively. Celebrating Communion is definitely not permitted.
In light of all this, we have created a new rhythm to each worship service. The first 20 minutes they choose an activity that helps them feel close to God. They can choose from watercoloring, coloring a mandala, meditating, reading their Bible, using a finger labyrinth and writing. I play worshipful music in the background and together we allow our souls a moment to breathe. Then we come together for a time of prayer. I am intentional to make sure to leave as much room as needed for every prayer request to be lifted up. The remainder of our time is spent doing a Bible study. We recently completed a study by The Bible Project on Spiritual Beings, which has led to some really fun and enlightening discussions.
I have appreciated all the people who have reached out inquiring about Hagar’s Community Church during this time, asking what they can do to support all the women of Hagar’s.
What I have learned from this crisis is that I am not the one in control of tomorrow — that job is solely in the hands of our Creator. I have also learned that prayer is powerful, and necessary. I would kindly ask that you continue to keep Hagar’s Community Church and all the women incarcerated at WCCW in your prayers.
Pray that the WCCW continues to have no COVID-19 cases and that the women remain safe and healthy. Please pray for their continued perseverance through this health crisis. Their lives have been disrupted and inconvenienced in ways that are hard for those of us on the outside to understand. Imagine if the only time you were not wearing a mask was when you were in bed — and this rule was being enforced by law enforcement living in your home.
A hymn I remember singing in church as a child, “Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus,” has been the song in my heart for the past several months. The simple words of this song capture what I have been learning about myself throughout this odd and strange time in world history.
I have been learning that my role is to place my hope and trust in Jesus and to keep walking forward, doing the best with what I have, and leaning on the promise that God will meet me in the midst of it all.
Jesus, Jesus, how I trust Him! How I’ve proved Him o’er and o’er Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! Oh, for grace to trust Him more!
Beginning Aug. 1, Elizabeth “Riley” Pickett, an ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament serving as a 1001 New Worshiping Communities resident, will collaborate with the Rev. Lane Brubaker to create and coordinate a new community reentry support program for women being released from the Washington Corrections Center for Women. Pickett served in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Young Adult Volunteer program at Okra Abbey during 2016-17.
To learn more about weekly virtual prayer gatherings for Hagar’s Community Church, visit hagarscommunitychurch.com.