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'I never want to see you in my church again'

St. Dysmas of South Dakota, Sioux Falls

On a sunny day inside the sanctuary at St. Dysmas of South Dakota, you can see the bars outside the stained-glass windows.

“We experience hope and joy here, but at the same time, we don’t ignore the seriousness of our pasts,” said William A. Hamill, pastor of a congregation made up of convicted felons at the South Dakota State Penitentiary. “The key to it all is the constant message by the congregational council and the core members: Repentance leads to forgiveness, and even you can be forgiven.”

Since December 2005, attendance at St. Dysmas has tripled, from about 35 worshipers to 100. Meanwhile the Bible study group has grown from a dozen to 40 inmates.

One-on-one outreach and evangelism is a key to the growth of the congregation, which worships in an auditorium refurbished by the inmates. “A good number of these men don’t believe they are forgiven, and they’re still living with the guilt and burden of their crime,” Hamill said. “It leads many of them to become hopeless.

“The core of Lutheran theology is grace, and when the men keep hearing about that in a sincere way, they see that grace is a reality for them too.”

Dozens of congregations routinely travel to St. Dysmas to encourage and worship with the inmates. One of the high points is a hymn sung in honor of prisoners finishing their sentences and preparing to leave.

“I get to give them the speech that I never want to see them in my church again,” Hamill said.


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