How OITNB Makes Me a Better Pastor

Chicago JailMy Girl Scout troop visited a minimum security women’s prison on a field trip many years ago and I remember thinking, “This is sort of like camp. Not bad at all.” It wasn’t in any way obvious that the inmates had back stories, curfews, limited choices, and the possibility of being shot or sequestered in solitary confinement if they acted out.

I am a big fan of Orange Is the New Black which is, of course, not a documentary on prison life, but it has had a huge impact on my life in terms of pondering what it means to live without power or freedom. The characters have made poor decisions or perhaps they’ve been victims of poverty and injustice.

There is more humor on OITNB than in real-life prison. I imagine that the graphic portrayal of abusive guards and terrible food and abject loneliness is often true. But the piece that sticks with me – a person who likes my freedom – is the humiliating lack of power.

We in the institutional church live in the thick and thin of power issues.

  • There are church members with little to no power in their home and work lives, but the congregation offers them their only opportunity to Have Power – or so they believe.
  • There are leaders with the enormous power to crush someone’s soul or to lift the most depleted or to brainwash, misinform, or mislead. Or to inspire!
  • There are the sitcom-worthy power struggles between the choir and the flower guild, between the pastor and the organist, between the church secretary and the head of the women’s fellowship.

I am reminded when I watch OITNB that:

  • Everybody has a back story which helps explain who she is
  • Everybody yearns for love and belonging
  • Everybody is innately beautiful – all sizes, colors, accents, personalities.
  • Everybody wants to be free.

The Bible speaks often about people in prison. Heck, several of the books were written by or influenced by someone in prison. I think about prisoners in a different way now. And I even think about parishioners in a different way.

Image – taken on my way to work today – is the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal prison in Chicago. Amazingly, the architect for this building was Harry Weese who also designed the Time-Life Building in Chicago, the Arena Stage in Washington, DC, the DC Metro System, and Union Station in DC. And so much more. Every person in Chicago and DC should know the name Harry Weese.

One response to “How OITNB Makes Me a Better Pastor

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful commentary. I haven’t seen OITNB but am watching “Rectify” which is powerful for other but related reasons. It is about a man released from death row into the same community from which he came after nearly 20 years. Thought provoking. (I have taken 12 step meetings into jails and prison–another sort of experience.)


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