“My job is to bring grace.” — Jeanine Kersey-Russell, prison chaplain.

BISMARCK — Jeanine Kersey-Russell plays it over in her mind: being summoned to the Behavioral Intervention Unit (BIU) of the North Dakota State Penitentiary, where she works as a chaplain, at the request of a small group of solitary-confinement inmates wanting Communion.

Walking, hosts in hand, down into what’s known as “the hole,” through long hallways filled with rows of metal doors, she wasn’t prepared for what she’d see peering through the thin opening of the first prisoner’s cell.

“I sat down on the concrete floor, in front of the tray slot, and when I looked at his face, I said, ‘I’m not trying to be insensitive, but how old are you?’” she says. His answer stunned her. “My heart broke. Here he is, 19 years old, sitting there in isolation.”

The young man admitted he didn’t even know what Communion was.

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“I just wanted to talk to you,” he said.

This mural is inside the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum
This mural is inside the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum

Eventually, the conversation came back to the bread in her hands, which she explained in terms he might understand. Yes, he’d like to receive some, he said.

“So, through the tray slot, I passed Communion to him,” Kersey-Russell says, “… and as a Christian woman, that was unbelievable. It was absolutely silent — and it’s never silent in BIU.”

Moments like these define her work ministering to prisoners. Though not all share her Christian beliefs, all share her humanity.

“One of the things I often get to do is be Christ in the hallway, without actually saying the name," she says.

An inmate at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck works on art during an art class. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum
An inmate at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck works on art during an art class. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum

'An important component'

Kersey-Russell isn’t there to proselytize, only to listen to the soul-needs of those before her, she says. To that end, she’s extended an “open-door policy” to the prisoners, inviting them to write down questions on a kite-shaped piece of paper she’ll do her best to answer.

“It’s been an interesting learning curve for me,” admits the Methodist minister, who previously worked as a pulpit pastor and hospital trauma unit chaplain. Despite her solid ecumenical training, she found North Dakota’s state prison “an eye-opener.”

“We have Christians of every color and flavor,” she says, along with Jews, Messianic Jews, Wiccans, Muslims, Native Americans, Satanists and those who follow lesser-known religions, like Asatru and Santa Muerte. Noting the “very diverse population,” Kersey-Russell says she’s constantly educating herself on varied religions and practices.

Asatru, a Nordic religion, captured her interest because of her Norwegian heritage. Each month, Kersey-Russell sets up a Skype conversation between the Asatru prisoners and an adjunct professor from the University of Minnesota, who gives a 90-minute lesson on Asatru beliefs.

“I love to sit in on it. She’s a terrific storyteller, and the stories she tells, it almost feels like it touches my genetic self. It almost feels like home,” she says.

For the Native American population, a “sweat” ritual takes place weekly, though, according to Kayli Richards, the prison's public information officer, restrictions apply because participants are typically unclothed.

“They can’t completely undress while incarcerated,” she says, but otherwise, the facility tries to meet requests.

Another example of inspirational art made by an inmate in Bismarck's North Dakota State Penitentiary. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum
Another example of inspirational art made by an inmate in Bismarck's North Dakota State Penitentiary. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum

Mike Sonju, a chaplain for the Cass County Jail in Fargo through Jail Chaplains, a Christian-based ministry, also expresses inclusivity. “If I were in a jail or prison, and they weren’t of the same belief, I would hope that if I requested a Bible, they’d accommodate that,” he says.

Sonju says many incarcerated individuals are searching spiritually, “reaching out to fill that void that previously was filled with alcohol and drugs,” and wanting religious materials or visits from ministers, of both Christian and non-Christian origin. Despite the jail’s efforts to comply, he says, a need still exists for more books and volunteers from all religions.

“People have to realize it is a jail. Some (religious leaders) don’t want to come into the jail; they want to see them on the outside. But we do try to fulfill those requests," he says.

Cass County Jail Administrator Andrew Frobig says the jail honors holidays like Ramadan for Muslim inmates, along with individual prayer times. He’s also received requests he can’t oblige, like procuring eagle feathers for Native American inmates, since it would be illegal for him.

“If a relative has one, they can get it sent in, or (we’ve received) little medicine bags,” he says.

Sweat lodges can’t be done there. “We don’t have the means within our secure (outside) parameter.”

Occasionally, Frobig says, someone will claim a false ministerial capacity to reach an inmate. “There are a lot of online ordainments; some are legit, but some are just designed to be silly. If I can log in and get myself ordained within five minutes, it’s probably not legitimate,” he says.

But overall, requests are taken seriously. “Spirituality is an important component of people’s lives,” he says. “We’ve seen more people cycling through, and once they’ve gotten connected with Jail Chaplains, many will come back in, not as inmates but to support others.”

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'Very rewarding work'

Across the river, for the past five years, Heart of Clay jail ministry in Moorhead has been bringing hope to inmates, including through life-skills classes. Vi Deilke, volunteer and board member, says the ministry reaches out to both juvenile and adult facilities, and like Jail Chaplains, their programs don’t discriminate.

“It’s very rewarding work,” she says, recalling a recent conversation in a financial class with a young woman who saw a bleak future. “She said, ‘You don’t know how much money I owe. There’s no hope for me,’ and I said, ‘Of course there’s hope!’”

During their weekly chapel service, Deilke says, she’s been heartened by those who show up, including “these guys, all tattooed up and rough-looking, yet they’re humble and wanting to help.” One made her smile in asking if they could sing, “Jesus Loves Me.”

Whether it’s Jesus or some other spiritual entity they seek, she says Heart of Clay wants to offer the incarcerated hope and wisdom.

“No matter what faith they belong to, when they get out, they’re going to be our neighbors. We want them to be strong and whole,” she says.

Another example of inspirational art made by an inmate in Bismarck's North Dakota State Penitentiary. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum
Another example of inspirational art made by an inmate in Bismarck's North Dakota State Penitentiary. North Dakota State Penitentiary / Special to The Forum

Julie Savat, Clay County Correctional Facility's administrator, says she appreciates these ministries and views any activity or program that keeps inmates positively engaged as an asset.

“There are federal guidelines that dictate what we can and cannot do, but it’s pretty clear that we have to make religious accommodations of any belief, and we do try,” she says.

Savat, who’s been with the jail for several decades, says it’s always been a priority, despite non-Christians not comprising a majority of the jail population.

“We’ve purchased prayer rugs for Muslims, and accommodated special (religious) diets,” she says. “(Inmates) can go into their cell at any time and do any type of praying they want.”

Kersey-Russell says her work has challenged her preconceived notions about what it is to to be a person of faith. “In the end, it’s really just about, ‘What do you need from me to help you heal?’”

Which resonates with what she heard years ago: Justice is when one gets what is deserved, and grace, when one receives what’s undeserved.

'“That’s my job here: to bring grace,” she says.

Salonen, a wife and mother of five, works as a freelance writer and speaker in Fargo. Email her at roxanebsalonen@gmail.com, and find more of her work at Peace Garden Passage, http://roxanesalonen.com/.