FEATURE STORIES

Duncan Miller & The Evolution of a Prison Ministry


by Brenda Huff
Sept 2008

 

Flashback: the year is 1973

Marvin Gaye’s number one hit, Let’s Get It On, topped the U.S. singles’ song charts for the year. The oil price was doubled by the Persian Gulf states. The Oakland A’s beat the New York Mets, earning their second straight World Series Championship. Fashion was all about denim, halter tops and platform shoes.

The drug culture was prevalent. An undercurrent of youthful disdain for traditional roles and values abounded. It was a dynamic time of social awareness and call for active reform in political and social arenas, with such events as the end of the Vietnam War and the emergence of the Watergate Scandal. Only two years before, the Attica prison riot focused the national spotlight on the appalling living conditions of prisons and the dire need for change.


And Soon, the month of August

The location was the quaint, historic New England town of Lexington, Massachusetts, the site, along with its neighboring towns, of the start of the War of Independence.  Duncan Miller was at home for the evening with his two young daughters while his wife, Holly, attended a Social Action Committee meeting at Grace Chapel, an evangelical Christian church in Lexington.

This Social Action Committee was an informal roundtable gathering of six church members and a chairman.  At the meeting Holly Miller and the others were challenged to boldly step out into their local communities to spread the gospel through a ministry of their choosing. Prior to this meeting, there had been much dialogue of doing this within the church, but little action to back up the talk. As the meeting adjourned, Holly left having made the commitment to launch a prison ministry. She drove home that night very unclear about how she would accomplish this.

As Holly walked through the doors of their home that evening, she was excited about the meeting, and eager to share her news with her husband Duncan. In the days that followed, they contacted the chaplain of a local penal institution for men, Massachusetts Correctional Institution-Concord (MCI-Concord). Mingled with her excitement was nervousness. The next action step was to attend the Chaplain’s discussion group at the site. Duncan Miller agreed to accompany his wife to the group, which proved to be a pivotal, though unplanned, event that would take the shape of God’s calling on their lives for the next three-and-a-half decades.


The Early Days of Prison Ministry

After the Attica prison riot, citizens in surrounding communities began to take an active interest in the housing conditions and treatment of MCI-Concord’s inmates. They had a keen interest in making certain that the inmates, as members of their community, were treated with dignity and felt valued.  Nobody wanted to relive the tragedy of Attica. 

In response to this, the Chaplain’s discussion group at MCI-Concord was formed.  This group, comprised of inmates and community volunteers, met weekly on Tuesday nights. The inmate population was predominantly Vietnam veterans and those with drug convictions. Contrary to its name, the group was led by a community volunteer, rather than the prison chaplain.

“In those days,” Miller says, “there were no clearance procedures or orientation classes. The chaplain just put our names on the list and we showed up, not having the slightest idea what to expect.”

After attending the first Tuesday evening Chaplain’s discussion group at the prison, Duncan and Holly continued to volunteer in this already established group for the next few years. Volunteers were assigned to subgroups of inmates to meet with long-term.  The hope was that, with this continuity of involvement, trusting relationships would form between volunteers and inmates.

According to Miller, “The group we originally joined had very fuzzy goals.  The basic notion seemed to be that any opportunity to talk to outside volunteers, even without real structure to the discussions, would somehow produce positive effects. We found most of these interactions to be pretty pointless -- in fact, for some of the men, they became a source of entertainment, playing "head games" with volunteers, whom they viewed as naive suburban do-gooders.”


A Christian Prison Ministry Takes Shape

In those first few years at MCI-Concord, Duncan and Holly saw an influx of committed Christians entering the Chaplain’s discussion group as volunteers, due in part to recruitment at local churches. Duncan adds, “There were a few men [inmates] who showed signs of hunger for more spiritual content.” Duncan emerged as the natural leader of the group. He had an innate ability to clearly see all the components of a task, and to systematically redirect, refocus and reorganize to work towards and accomplish goals.

Another local man, Don Moberger, was also on the scene. He worked for the Evangelistic Association of New England (later renamed Vision New England). He labored diligently from the mid to late 70s to instate Christian chaplains in every Massachusetts prison. He was put on the Governors’ Advisory Committee and tirelessly pursued this God-given call.  By the end of the 1970s, he saw his dream largely come to fruition: The majority of newly appointed prison chaplains were Christian. 

In 1976 a Christian chaplain, John Mallory, was hired at MCI-Concord. This new chaplain challenged the Christians (especially Duncan Miller) within the ministry to take the reins and transform the program into one having a Christian focus. Transforming this secular program into a meaningful Christian ministry was no small task, and there were myriad obstacles that Miller would encounter.

He began searching for Christian materials available for beginning and conducting a prison ministry program. Simple enough, so he thought. Miller’s goal was to follow an already established, successful protocol. His search was unproductive; no such materials were available.

With this discovery, he was surprised, disheartened and a little overwhelmed.  John Mallory encouraged Miller to develop his own lesson plans and discussion questions. His task suddenly took on heavier weight and larger proportions.  

“This was something I had never done,” he says, “but I stepped out in faith and decided to give it a try.” (Later, in the 1980s, Prison Fellowship Ministries, under the direction of Chuck Colson, were the first to develop and offer such teaching materials for prison ministry.)

Although faced with a daunting task, Miller doggedly rose to the challenge.  In serving within his prison ministry role, he felt he was answering his call as a teacher, organizer and leader. He clearly saw the void in the system; the incredible need to establish and run a Christian program for people in obvious need. He embraced this opportunity to make a real difference in his community, and to advance the kingdom of God.

In the mid 70s, Miller began to develop curriculum for Bible studies for the prison ministry at MCI-Concord. He used a process of trial and error over time. He tried to make the lessons relevant and highly interactive. Active inmate participation became an integral part of the studies. He often took cues from the inmates themselves as to what worked and what did not. 

Holly Miller worked with her husband on the prison ministry team for the first ten years. Initially, women were a part of the ministry team, but eventually the team became an all-male group. It was found that the presence of women during then Bible studies was too much of a distraction for the male inmates and changed the dynamics of the meetings.  Inmates gave significantly better attention to their studies without this distraction.


The Ministry Evolves

Miller adapted the studies to the changing needs of his students at MCI-Concord.  The institution itself went through changes over time: In 1980, MCI-Concord became a medium security facility serving as the Massachusetts Department of Corrections Reception and Diagnostic Center.  Since 1995, it receives all new court commitments of the male offender, and functions as a sort of relay station. After 12 to16 weeks following an inmate’s initial arrival at the institution, he will appear before the Classification Board.  The Board determines both a security rating and an institutional placement for the inmate.

In response to the needs of a population of inmates having relatively short stays of no longer than six months, Miller’s curriculum evolved into a series of tried and true Bible studies focusing on Christian living and Christian doctrine, organized in relatively short sequences, designed for completion roughly every six months.

Topics covered in the teaching series are drawn primarily from the teachings and parables of Jesus, and fall into three groupings: “Living in God’s Kingdom,” “Christian Growth,” and “Being Part of the Church.” 

Duncan notes that the primary goal of the ministry is to “help prison inmates learn about Jesus Christ and His teachings, in the hope that they will decide to commit their lives to following Him as their personal Savior and Lord.”

A very popular incentive program is the awards portion of the Bible study meetings.  Inmates are encouraged to complete independent study, using two, six-book Navigators Bible Studies (available in English and Spanish). Years ago, Holly Miller had the idea of awarding certificates to inmates for successful completion of each book. Initially she printed out all the certificates and filled them out by hand, making good use of skills learned in a calligraphy class. Today, all the work is done on a computer.

For inmates, some of whom have never finished high school or anything significant in their lifetime, these awards have become a very big deal. Some even proudly mail their certificates to wives or mothers. Over one-third of the inmates participate in this part of the study.


Lessons Learned

Miller points out that the stereotype of inmates created by the media is a misnomer.  “Many people have been conditioned to expect to meet men who seem obviously pathological.” 

He says this about his experience: “While there clearly are such people in the prison system, they are not generally the ones who feel motivated to come out to religious discussion groups.”

He and the other volunteers he has worked with over the years have found the inmates to be “much like regular people.” He says, “There is a general and significant attitude of respect, at least once a group has earned a certain level of credibility among the prison population.”

Miller’s sustained effort over 35 years has impacted many lives. More than 300 volunteers (manning a weekly ministry team of 9 to12 people), and over 20,000 inmates (in weekly groups of 90 to100 men), have participated in these weekly Bible study sessions. Miller points out that, in as much as his ministry has touched so many inmates, he has been inspired by his students. They have widened his perspective and given him insight into ways of thinking that he would have never known. He has listened and learned from them, and used their input to modify his studies and make them more effective in teaching.

He gave an example of a recent experience during a study centering on the parable of the Good Samaritan (in the gospel of Luke 10:25-37). Here, Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan to answer the question, “And who is my neighbor?” An expert in the (Jewish) law had asked this question to clarify the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He was looking for set parameters: What were the rules?

In the story, a traveler is beaten and robbed along a highway and left for dead.  A priest, and later a Levite, see him and choose to pass by on the other side of the road, ignoring his plight. It is the third man, a Samaritan, passing by who stops to help the man. He treats his injuries, transports him to an inn and cares for him there, and even pays the innkeeper to continue caring for the man after he leaves, going so far as to say he will reimburse him for any extra expense upon his return. 

The most amazing part of the story is that a Samaritan comes to the aid of the injured Jewish man, not the upstanding representatives of the Jewish community. Historically, there was strong animosity between traditional Jews and Samaritans, due to a split in beliefs about Jewish doctrine. 

In the discussion groups following the lesson, one of the inmates paralleled the parable to his prison experience. He talked about gangs and their allegiances. Firm boundaries are set up within this system defining your associates.

In the story Jesus told, we are no longer bound by rules and traditions that limit who our neighbors are and where it is acceptable to love. Lines drawn are erased and we are free (and required) to love everyone as our neighbor. The story of a Samaritan man coming to the aid of a Jew is just as radical as the idea of one gang member ignoring gang protocol and helping or befriending a rival gang member.


In it For the Long Haul

I asked Duncan Miller if he ever felt discouraged, or if he had considered quitting his prison ministry. This was his in-depth answer: “Everyone I know who is involved in prison ministry has had disappointing -- even heartbreaking -- experiences, when men who really seemed to be walking with the Lord and whose lives seemed genuinely changed, have fallen back into sin and returned to prison, sometimes with more serious charges than their original ones. Such experiences test one's own faith. 

“When I decided to talk to these men to try to determine what had gone wrong, a clear pattern emerged. Most of those individuals who came back or re-offend, in prison-speak, had never become actively involved in a genuine Christian fellowship. They believed the doctrine we had taught them, but they had never really become part of a Christian community.

“In response to these insights, we began focusing more of our lessons and discussions on what a church really is and how it's supposed to work. Instead of just encouraging guys to ‘go to church,’ we started emphasizing the need to become an accountable member of an active Christian fellowship. And we talked about what accountability really involves. Though I still lack hard statistics, I know this message is getting through.  I have had several men who have been re-sentenced to prison come to me and confess that they really hadn't done what we had talked about in the group -- which clearly means that they remembered the lessons and the recommendations we gave them!

“The second answer I would offer is one that I have also heard from many people who have had long-term involvement in prison ministry:  that the experience of working with prisoners has significantly aided their own spiritual growth and maturity.

“Part of this comes simply from experience. There is hardly any question that comes up that I haven't had to deal with many times before, and so have worked out good ways for responding to tough questions. But there's a deeper part, too. I have been through some tough times in my personal and professional life that I sometimes feared might overwhelm me. I found that the perspective I gained from dealing with men whose problems were far worse than my own helped me re-calibrate my thoughts about what really matters. 

“There have been many evenings when I had struggles I was dealing with, only to come home uplifted and spiritually refreshed. I sometimes tell people, with only slight exaggeration, that there have been times when I felt that the prison ministry helped me retain my sanity.”


The Ministry Today – PrisonNet

Duncan Miller continues to have a heart for prison ministry.  He still leads the MCI-Concord group every Monday night. He also has a heart for mentoring and expansion.  Over the years he has helped former prison inmates join his ministry team. Within the last year, he has expanded his prison ministry to another men’s facility in Shirley, MA, guiding the process of establishing an effective prison ministry there. 

Millers grandest endeavor and investment into the future of prison ministry is the development of PrisonNet, a prison ministry network (see www.prisonnet.org). Not forgetting the struggles he encountered at his ministry’s inception, he developed this website in 1999 to provide information to help churches build effective prison ministries.

At this site, he shares his wisdom and experience of 35-plus years, guidelines and tips for building an effective ministry, and his bible study curriculum. The series of lesson plans posted on the website are being used in many prisons across the country and around the world. 

His vision for the website includes encouraging the development of similar prison ministries nationally and even internationally. The goal is information sharing and dissemination.

According to the website, “Ultimately, we want to develop a network of churches, groups, and organizations within which we and other PrisonNet participants can refer prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families with confidence in the soundness and effectiveness of all the ministries involved.”


The Legacy

It’s hard to imagine staying committed to any cause over the course of an adult lifetime. Miller has been married to Holly for 44 years, been employed by the same company since 1963, and stayed with prison ministry 35-plus years. And he’s still a member of Grace Chapel. All of this testifies to his character.

Duncan Miller was a young man in the prime of life with a young family when he started the prison ministry at MCI-Concord. His two daughters are now grown, and he and Holly have three grandchildren. The prison ministry impacted not just the thousands of inmates Miller and his team encountered over the many years, but also his family. It became a part of all their lives, and a tremendous influence. Without question, the greatest legacy of his years in prison ministry is to his family.

His daughter Kristin says that her father's long-term involvement in prison ministry has taught her that “to make the world a better place, you don't have to do everything; you just have to pick one way to make a difference and stick with it. Who knows how many lives he has affected by adopting this strategy? I'm sure there have been many inmates who were changed by what they learned from my dad and passed on that change to their children and others when they were released from prison.”

The words she uses to describe her dad are "he walks the talk." She says, “So many people profess their Christian faith without taking action on Jesus' words. My dad remembered Jesus' words, "I was in prison, and you came to visit me," and chose to live by them.”

She remembers that when she and her sister, Brenda, were young, her parents went to MCI-Concord every Monday night for the prison ministry. She reflects, “I didn't realize until I was a parent myself that they could have chosen to have a "date night" instead; but rather than having dinner and a movie, they were changing lives. I also didn't realize at the time how special this was; that other people's parents didn't do things like this. I have been blessed by the legacy of service they have given me!”

In summing up his experience, Miller says, “Overall, I feel a clear conviction that God led me into this ministry both for my own spiritual growth and to help others grow, both prisoners and volunteers. This, in itself, is a real lesson about how He guides our paths. When we are using the spiritual gifts He has given us, it brings us closer to Him as well as helping others come closer to Him as well.”

Duncan Miller is a man of fortitude and integrity. He doesn’t quit in the face of adversity, and keeps his sights on the bigger Kingdom view in light of his own personal sacrifice. He recognized his God-given opportunity to use his unique gifts and abilities for the service of others and God, and acted.

He continues to follow this call into the future, expanding the vision of his prison ministry to encompass a network of ministries all supporting and building one another up, and giving direction to the development of new ministries. His example is irreplaceable, invaluable and truly inspirational.

 

Editor’s Note:
The Attica Prison Riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in Attica, New York, occurred in September, 1971. The riot was based in part upon prisoner demands for improved living conditions and racial tensions. Between 1,000 and 2,200 inmates rioted and seized control of the prison, taking 33 correction officers hostage. After four days of negotiations, state troopers were brought in to forcibly regain control.  Tragically, in the end, at least 39 people (inmates as well as correctional officers and civilians) were killed in the riot.

 

 


Holly and Duncan Miller

Holly and Duncan Miller on the occasion of their 40th wedding anniversary.

 

 

Massachusetts Correctional Institution—Concord

Massachusetts Correctional Institution—Concord

 

 

Charles Colson and Duncan Miller

Charles Colson and Duncan Miller