“Why did you become involved in corrections ministry?” It was a fair question that Karen Vinyard always had a good answer for, “My husband is incarcerated.”
Vinyard, a longtime Illinois Woman’s Missionary Union leader, began volunteering in corrections ministry while her husband was serving 13 years in prison for drug-related charges. Their daughter, who was 10 years old when her father was arrested, grew up, graduated from college and got married while her dad was in prison.
“I tell people, ‘It’s not something that I planned for my life. It’s not something that I wanted to happen in my life,'” Vinyard said. “I would tell that to our daughter. I said, ‘But you know what? It happened. Now what are we going to do with it? We have a choice to make in this. … We can hide it, be ashamed of it or we can use it to somehow allow God to bring glory to Him and to use us in this.'”
Vinyard chose the latter. Today, she and her husband, who was released from prison last year, are active members of First Baptist Church of Eldorado, Ill. While she is grateful for their current season of life, Vinyard remains deeply committed to helping other families still struggling like she was.
“I think truthfully, there were so many years that I felt like I probably lived in a tunnel – just trying to survive at times,” she said. “You don’t maybe sometimes have a lot of support from people, friends. It’s not something that you talk about many times over casual conversation.
“It was, I think, after my daughter had actually graduated from high school and college, I just finally felt a freedom like, ‘OK, God, we made it, we made it. Thank you.’ Through this time, we were able to raise a daughter in the church and still, even with an incarcerated father, to kind of still maintain that contact of the family, but yet not have a turning away from God in the midst of it, not asking God, ‘OK, why did this happen to me?'”
Instead, she asked, “Why not me? Why would this not happen to me instead of someone else?”
Vinyard takes that perspective to the conferences she leads on “Bringing Hope to the Forgotten Families.”
“Sometimes I felt like the families of the incarcerated were the ones that truly were forgotten,” she said. “We as a church need to be aware of that and to know how to minister to those families.”
Along with reaching out to families, Vinyard has a burden for helping churches assist former inmates with their reentry into society.
During a recent speaking engagement, she said, “People released from prison have three needs: They need a safe environment, they need employment, but they also need community. That community can be the church walking alongside, sharing the love, hope and forgiveness that is possible through Christ.
“Are we as churches ready to minister to the needs that may come with someone who has been in prison and is re-entering the ‘real world’? There is a great need for churches to be bridge churches to people who are formerly incarcerated, to be mentors to them in their spiritual journey.”
Vinyard’s ministry passion can be traced to her early involvement in Girls in Action and Acteens. She and National WMU Executive Director Sandy Wisdom-Martin are longtime friends who served together in their teens as counselors at Illinois Baptists’ Lake Sallateeska Baptist Camp.
“The bubbly personality of the teenage Karen drew me in like a magnet,” Wisdom-Martin recalled. “She was such a positive influence on my life, always upbeat and encouraging. She served with incredible passion and joy.
“Nearly four decades later, her name still brings a smile to my heart. And all those things I said about teenage Karen are still true. She has allowed God to take the circumstances of her life and use them for His glory. I am astonished by her faith and grateful our lives intersected.”
Vinyard now serves as director of the Saline Baptist Association’s WMU.
“WMU … is a foundation for me,” Vinyard said. “I want it to persevere. I want it to transcend all generations. I want it to be there for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren because it is the vehicle, the instrument that we can use to share the gospel with others.”
Vinyard said issues for those with incarcerated family members range from financial stress to loneliness to a sense of shame. Helpful responses can include such practical steps as inviting the family over for a meal, sitting with a parent who is alone at a child’s sporting event, volunteering to take a child shopping for school clothes or just taking the time to send the child a birthday card.
“There may be someone sitting right next to you in our churches that either they have been or a family member has been incarcerated, but many times we won’t share that,” Vinyard said.
“It definitely is a ministry of presence and encouragement,” she added. “Our church always paid a lot of attention to my daughter. Those things mean so much to you to have that community behind her.”
Amid all the emotional and spiritual ups and downs, Vinyard said her life verse has become 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, which describes God as “the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.”
“The comfort that the Holy Spirit gives you is not just to bring you comfort,” Vinyard said. “It truly is then to share with others.”
Watch an interview with Karen Vinyard below:
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Trennis Henderson is WMU National Correspondent.)