Supporting ministry in prisons

The Rev. Canon Sharon Dunlop is a deacon at St. James’ Anglican Church in Kingston, Ontario, a canon of the Cathedral of St. George in the Diocese of Ontario, and a chaplain at Collins Bay Prison. In the midst of those many roles, she is also a student in Dio’s distance education Reading and Tutorial program that helps students prepare for ministry in local settings across the United States and Canada. We asked her some questions about her ministry and her experience of the Reading and Tutorial program.

 Tell us about your current ministry, both in the church and outside it. What’s your church like? What’s the community it serves like? What has your ministry been like during the pandemic?

My passion is in prison ministry.  This is not a surprising choice because “all things prison” have interested me since pre-teen years.   Movies, books, songs and articles about prison injustices spoke to me, with a particular sensitivity towards wrongful convictions.  In mid-2003 I moved to Kingston to volunteer in prisons.  Fortunately, God also provided paid employment and a place to live!  In 2004 I became a chaplaincy volunteer in several prisons. I now serve as a full-time chaplain at Collins Bay Institution.  I also serve on the Kingston Justice and Peace Commission and as a supporting member of Innocence Canada.

Ordination into the diaconate was not a goal to which I aspired.  It came about through conversations with two individuals, six months apart, concerning prison ministry, that I was encouraged to give consideration to the diaconate, with corrections, restorative justice and victims as my ministry focus.

During the pandemic, in-person chaplaincy was suspended at Correctional Services Canada locations across the country for a period of four months.  During that time, I prepared a few sermons for Sunday morning broadcasts from a local radio station; prepared posters of words of encouragement for the inmates and responded to some specific requests for service from Collins Bay.  Although chaplaincy is considered essential, it is not considered critical to the safety and well-being of the inmates and the staff who look after them. 

I serve as a deacon at St. James’ Anglican Church on the campus of Queen’s University. The congregation is inter-generational, inclusive and from a variety of backgrounds.  Inmates from two area minimum-security prisons have attended Sunday and special services on alternating weekly schedules for several years.  Many of them have assisted in community service events and meal preparation at St. James’. 

Tell us about how you heard about Dio. Why did you pick Dio in particular for theological study?

Aside from having a servant ministry, following a theological study program is integral to the formation process to become a deacon.  Because I was working full-time, I searched for online courses that would fit into my schedule and budget.  A friend who had completed the R&T program encouraged me to give it consideration.  I saw that the R&T units were similar to those required for diaconal studies in the Diocese of Ontario and that they could be completed according to the student’s schedule, all of which made the choice of this program obvious.

Tell us about your experience of the Reading and Tutorial program. What have you learned? How have you felt it has shaped your ministry?

I started my study program a few years ago, under a previous curriculum which was excellent. Recently, the curriculum was entirely renewed and what I like about the current curriculum is how it encourages students to view the Gospel message through the lens of our contemporary world.  We need to understand what God’s word is saying to us now; to the marginalized; to the outcasts; to women; to Indigenous societies; to those struggling with gender identity issues; to the stewardship of our planet.  The current curriculum affords the opportunity and indeed encourages the student to do this.  Crime and incarceration know no boundaries.  It transcends all segments of society, regardless of economic standing, gender, culture, level of education.  Those who are hungry, thirsty, in need of clothing, suffering from sickness or disease – can find themselves in prison (Matthew 25:31-46), leading up to, or as a result of, these conditions.   To me, the many societal concerns are inter-connected and not separate pillars.

Having been away from an academic learning environment for several years, I found it a challenge to get back into the discipline of studying, journaling and writing papers.  Admittedly it has taken me longer than the given timeframe to complete some of the units of the program.  The units are challenging, encouraging the students to stretch their minds and theological understanding as they explore aspects of the Christian faith and tradition that are new to them. 

Working with a tutor has been a tremendous asset in gaining a deeper insight into the scriptures and their application in our current world.  My tutor has experience ministering in detention centres and prisons and has a passion for restorative justice, to help bring healing between individuals and their communities.  Because of this shared interest he has helped me to read the Bible through the lens of social justice concerns, which has translated into prison ministry and ministry in the community.

The Reading and Tutorial program is a distance education program that lets you work at your own pace. Why is this important for you in your current life circumstances?

Being able to work at my own pace is a great bonus.  Over the years I have participated in various online programs and workshops but they have a prerequisite to meet together at a specified time, which may conflict with other events going on in my life.  Having the freedom to set aside time for study while juggling work and home responsibilities is a blessing.  The Reading and Tutorial study program is unique in its flexibility.  I am very thankful for this opportunity for study and have recommended this program to people who are in a similar situation – wanting to study theology but not able to commit to regular online courses or in class. 

While it would be great to be following theology courses in seminary, surrounded by ongoing conversation and in the sharing of ideas with others throughout the day, having this Reading and Tutorial program available is a tremendous gift to those who want to deepen their understanding about their faith & particularly to those who are preparing for ordination but who are unable to commit to being in a physical place for a specified time frame.

Students who successfully complete all twelve units of the study program will be awarded a Certificate of Theology.  Following the online study program, students who are pursuing ordination are encouraged to participate in the in-ministry year, following which a Licentiate in Theology can be awarded.  While it is preferable for the in-ministry student to do their pastoral and academic studies at the College, it is possible for the student to do much of this in their Diocese, travelling to the College as required to complete the program.   The in-ministry program is something I have been giving some thought to participating in when the online courses have been completed. 

I will always be grateful for this opportunity. 

 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?   Micah 6:8  NRSV