Giving God’s Love: An Interview with Sandra Anderson of Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry

In honor of  Valentine’s Day, we are offering a series about those who return God’s Love to the community and the world through ministry and acts of service.

Sandra Anderson was born in New Hampshire, and found her way to Minnesota’s Twin Cities in the 1980s. She served on the Board of Women in Electronics (WIE) from 1984 to 1993. Her faith and her passion to serve led her to accept a newly created position at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church, which was seeking to enrich the role of ministries in the life of the parish. As the parish grew, so did the ministries.

Sandra is the Assistant Director of the Minnesota branch of the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry,  a Pan-Orthodox organization  sanctioned by the Assembly of Canonical Bishops of North and South America (under the leadership of Fr. Stephen Pawley and the Minnesota chapter director Richard Wagner).

Tell us about your ministry and what is the most interesting part of it?

The most interesting part for me is the opportunity to see what a “new life in Christ” actually looks like. We usually are in company of our fellow faithful and we don’t really see them “transformed”, so to speak. These men and women [in prison] have come to a point in their lives where they have recognized they want to change their lives by coming to Christ. We see them come from the depths of despair and shame to joyful servants of the Lord. Even though they are still incarcerated, their spirits are now free.

How does this ministry impact others: the participants, and the church?

I can only speak for myself but for me, this ministry has really challenged me to dig deeper into my faith. It is a difficult ministry: it’s not like ministering to widows and orphans or hungry folks. These folks are in prison because they deserve to be, and many times when they share their crimes with us it is difficult to hear. They are rapists and murderers; not just drunk drivers, thieves or drug addicts. So this reality requires us to really understand ‘forgiveness’, even though it’s not always so easy.

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Icon of Christ the Prisoner

We don’t believe that Christ stands outside the prison gates and says, “Okay, see you in 20 years when you have done your time and paid for your crimes.” No, he is in there with them, and he asks us to be there as well. Matthew 25 says “When YOU did this to the least of them, YOU did it to me.” So my question is: Who is the YOU in this passage?

The men and women eagerly await our visits. They show us hospitality as best they can. They pray for us, thanking the Lord for our presence, asking Him to return us safely to our families. This is quite humbling.

The church is affected by the fact that we are truly living out Matthew 25 and that our parishioners are asked to dig deep into their hearts and pray for these men and women who have fallen so far and are trying to lift their hearts and heads up to the Lord.

Where do you see this ministry going as far as short or long-term goals?

Our prayer is that we can continue this ministry and of course grow the ministry eventually to other facilities and also across the country. When I began this ministry my prayer was that we would have at least one OCPM in every state; wouldn’t that be awesome!

Tell us about your role in the ministry? 

In my position [at St. Mary’s in] Ministry Development I was asked to seek out an Orthodox Chaplain named Paul Hatjistilianos who lived here in the Twin Cities. Paul had taught Prison Ministry to seminarians at Holy Cross, so I went to him to help me start a ministry here. This was back in 2004. We worked together for a year and officially started going to the prison in February of 2005. We now go to the Women’s prison (starting our 7th year there). We also have a Typika service at the men’s facility every time there is a 5th Sunday. This has been a real blessing. We have a fellowship breakfast every other month with the men and women and their families, as well as those who have been released, so that we can continue to support their efforts to change their lives. We also have a book ministry and letter-writing ministry.

How can readers assist in this ministry (or assist in building their own in their Metropolis)?

First, if you have any questions about starting a ministry please go to the website and click on “Get Involved”.

Secondly, for right now we need prayers. Please pray for the prisoners and their salvation; please pray for all judges, lawyers, parole boards and anyone who plays a part in the DOC.  Pray for discernment and mercy for these men and women that are desperately trying to change their lives.

The Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry of Minnesota is a a Pan Orthodox team of 23 people from 6 different Orthodox Churches in the Twin Cities (Coptic, OCA, GOC and Antiochian). For more on the Minnesota branch, please visit, http://www.ocpm-mn.org 

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