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Minister works with MCI inmates

June 26, 1998|By TERRY TALBERT

by JOE CROCETTA / staff photographer

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Minister works with MCI inmates

When the Rev. Blaine Feightner was in the seventh grade, a teacher told him to read something other than sports books. He read "Cell 2455, Death Row" by Caryl Chessman.

In a way, it was that book that years later landed Feightner behind bars.

"It must have left a lasting impression on me," he said.

Feightner, 50, has been pastor of the Sharpsburg Lutheran Parish since 1994. He ministers to two congregations in Sharpsburg and one in Rohrersville.

Feightner also serves time in prison, in a manner of speaking. He has been ministering to inmates at the Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown since the fall of 1996 as part of the Lutheran church's Community of St. Dysmas prison ministry.

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Feightner said St. Dysmas was the thief who hung on the cross next to Jesus. Jesus told the thief he would join him in Paradise that day after they both died.

Feightner's group at MCI has grown from three inmates to about two dozen men between who range in age from the mid-20s to the mid-50s. They meet Saturday nights for Bible study and to talk. Feightner also holds a monthly Eucharist and worship service at the prison.

Ask Feightner about the men he serves, and he'll tell you that there but for the grace of God go the rest of us. "They're just people like us, who ended up there because of the error of their ways," he said.

He can't remove their bars, but Feightner can open the lines of communication with prisoners who are isolated and distrustful. "It's a good fellowship. We've grown close," he said. "It's the only time they can let their hair down and be themselves."

"We do a lot of laughing," he added.

When his wife died 1 1/2 years ago, Feightner said he talked to the inmates about his loss. "I shared completely with them, and they ministered to me," he said.

Years of work with prison inmates have given Feightner insights and opinions about the justice system. He's against capital punishment, but for "quick and efficient punishment appropriate to the crime."

He's also against parole. "I think they ought to set the sentence and give them the date they're going to get out and not let them out a day before that," he said.

To lock people up for an indefinite amount of time is unfair to convicts and their families, and costly to taxpayers, according to Feightner. "That's punishing us," he said.

Feightner said rehabilitation, not confinement, should be the goal of the system. "You've got to figure everybody in there's going to get out one day," he said.

Feightner said the system stacks the odds against inmates rebuilding their lives on the outside when they are released after years in prison. "They give them - what is it, $49? - and they're on their way. They have no ID cards. Nothing. They've taken everything away."

Through his St. Dysmas ministry Feightner and other volunteers have helped inmates after their release, and made it possible for inmates' children to go to summer camps.

Inspired by the Chessman book, Feightner has been involved in prison ministries in Maryland and Pennsylvania as chaplain and volunteer pastor, ever since his days at the Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary.

All told, Feightner said he's been involved in prison ministries for about 15 years. "I love doing this," he said.

Feightner has a message for people who think inmates have it easy. "They don't," he said. "I wouldn't switch places with any of them."

Without making excuses for their crimes, Feightner estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of the inmates he's dealt with said someone in their family had been murdered.

Feightner said if he had his wish, he would like to cut through the bureaucracy and have free access to inmates. He would like to have more time to talk with them, and with correctional officers, who have problems of their own.

If that happens, he'll welcome it. Until then he'll keep doing what he can, in hopes it will make a difference in the life of at least one inmate.

Feightner is a busy man, but he's not all work and no play. When he gets some spare time, he likes to travel. He knows our Earthly future is uncertain, and he's living life to its fullest while he's able. "Since my wife died I've gone to 13 countries. Altogether I've been to 24," he said. "When you get done with life, all you have is your memories. ... So I'm trying to accumulate as many as I can."

His favorite place?

"I haven't found it yet," he said.

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