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LTSP student Linda Manson focuses on criminal justice ministry

Linda MansonLinda Manson, ready to embark on her last year at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia (LTSP), remembers being instilled in her youth with the critical importance of ministering to “the least of these.”

No wonder for more than 30 years Manson has been called to prison ministry — for many years as a volunteer visitor and mentor, then as a life skills education coach and re-entry specialist for the Pennsylvania Prison Society at Broad and Vine Streets in Philadelphia. Despite terrific satisfaction she derived from teaching soon-to-be ex-offenders about topics like job skills and readiness, finding job opportunities for inmates nearing release, developing programming and mentoring lifers at Graterford, to name a few responsibilities, she felt a spiritual component was missing in her professional life.

“I’ve always encouraged people I’ve contacted through the criminal justice system as a visitor to explore their spiritual life,” Manson said. “But there simply was no place in my classroom work to do that kind of encouraging.” She yearned for some new direction but wasn’t sure where that yearning could lead. And her schedule with the Prison Society was so jam-packed, she felt she had no time to reflect and discern.

“In 2007 I decided to leave the society to think about next steps,” she said. But she didn’t know what they would be.

Landa Manson on campusIn the fall of 2005, Manson decided to enroll in the Faith and Leadership Academy (part of the seminary’s Faith and Life Institute), a program of theological education for the laity and an initiative co-sponsored by the seminary and Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, led by the Rev. George E. Keck. The program deepened her perspective, “stirred a lot in me,” and made her think about seminary study. “But I felt my age was a factor, and I had no desire to incur educational debt,” she remembered.

Manson decided she would take things one step at a time. “I entered into the candidacy process with the synod as a first step after leaving the Prison Society, and waited to see what might happen,” she said. She found a position at the seminary as administrative assistant in the Admissions Office, and she enrolled in a certificate program of the seminary’s Urban Theological Institute. “It seems like each of the steps I was beginning to take were the right ones.” She calls the new seminary job she had then and the certificate program “a Holy Spirit moment.”

She was admitted to candidacy, wondered about enrolling in the Theological Education for Emerging Ministries track, a quicker and less expensive route to professional ministry. “It didn’t end up that way,” she said simply. She is now on a Master of Divinity track. Along the way in January 2012, Manson made the connection between her previous vocational passion and a yearned-for spiritual component. She received a letter from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) certifying her to be a mission developer/redeveloper. As she completes her studies, she is heading up Living Gospel Ministries, an outreach designed to furnish vital resources to the Greater Philadelphia criminal justice community. “We’re developing a worship community and also a ministry of accompaniment to all those connected to the criminal justice system.” That includes inmates, those returning to the community from prison, convicted persons who’ve never been incarcerated, prison guards and officials, law enforcement personnel, public defenders and attorneys, judges, and concerned family members in all these categories and others. Her vision acknowledges that those categories may require different support group structures, but she also hopes that all might engage together in Bible studies.

“All sides in the criminal justice system are in pain and hurting,” Manson explained. “And most of the time in our churches we aren’t addressing that pain.”

She explained that “we have to go beyond a focus on those who are incarcerated. About 2.5 million offenders are imprisoned in the US,” she said. “But about 7.8 million people connected to the criminal justice system have never been incarcerated.” They are parolees, for example, or others who have not been sentenced to jail time.

Ashes To Go - Linda Manson

At Philadelphia’s Suburban Station on Ash Wednesday
for “Ashes to Go” (photo courtesy Violet Little/SEPA)

Manson learned a lot about a vision for this ministry from her mentor coach, the Rev. Violet C. Little, pastor of “The Welcome Church,” a congregation without walls that embraces the area’s homeless community. Manson was a field worker and then intern working with Little and the congregation (2012-14). Unlike “The Welcome Church,” where the population is “in transition and a focus is on helping the homeless gain permanent housing,” Manson explained Living Gospel Ministries will eventually need “a place, some kind of physical space. People connected to the criminal justice system need stability, a home base to explore job opportunities and housing and stay away from elements that have negatively impacted their lives,” she believes. She envisions the space as a place to “rebuild the right kinds of connections” including in some instances family relationships that have been “burned.”

Manson, an accountant by trade, is connected with a synod anti-racism task force. Last year she was part of the ELCA’s Criminal Justice Task Force, which developed a Church-wide Social Statement on Criminal Justice. It passed at the ELCA Assembly in Pittsburgh in August 2013. The statement in a nutshell, as explained by Manson: “We have a crisis in mass incarceration,” she explained. “We have to admit the system is biased against people of color. We are called to care for the ‘least of these’. Every congregation can do something. We need to hold each other accountable to a call for action. We need to accompany all our brothers and sisters connected to criminal justice, from judges to returning ex-offenders.”

Manson’s journey to her current place received sharp impetus in the late 1970s. She had returned to her native Philadelphia, settling in Germantown. She was then a Baptist, but had heard about Trinity Lutheran Church in Germantown as a “safe place” for her two young sons to be after school and attending Sunday School. Seminary alumnus the Rev. P. Richard Grove, was Trinity’s pastor. “He was always out in the community and had been inviting me to attend a couple of years,” Manson recalled. But she resisted. She involved her sons at Trinity and usually attended a Baptist service.

One weekend her sons insisted she attend a Trinity program the boys would be a part of. “That Sunday changed my life,” she remembered. “I had always had a deeply strong personal faith life, but I had always felt a bit disconnected from the same feeling about institutional religion, even though I had always been active in church.”

On this particular Sunday, Manson heard a sermon from Grove unlike any other. “Pastor Grove preached a message about a God of grace and mercy, who loves me just the way I am. I had never heard a message like that before. I had always felt some inadequacy, that I was never good enough. His message of grace and mercy connected my understanding of institutional religion with the God I had been meeting in my personal devotions and prayer life.”

It wasn’t long before Manson joined Trinity, and after Grove left in the mid-1990s she moved to St. Michael’s in Mt. Airy, where her pastors in succession were Little and the Rev. Janet Peterman, LTSP alumni, and now alumna Pastor Andrena Ingram. Manson’s journey has always been one of “being active in the church.”

“I have enjoyed my journey through seminary tremendously,” Manson said. “I have learned things I never could have imagined.” She cites former Prof. Wil Gafney’s ability “to open up for me the Hebrew Scriptures in a way I never thought of before,” Prof. Nelson Rivera’s “Thinking of God” class, preaching classes by Prof. Karyn Wiseman and liturgy classes as taught by former Prof. Claudio Carvalhaes.

“They’ve helped me to understand the responsibility I will have to stand in front of God’s people and help them to see how God is at work in their lives. To be part of helping others to understand God’s awesome grace and hope is a responsibility and a tremendous blessing.”

Manson also cites the vital value of the collegiality of her classmates and seminary staff. “LTSP is a great community that has given me a great foundation for ministry” she said.

“If you feel you are sensing a call to ministry, be prayerful, talk to your pastor and lay leaders in the church who can help you identify your gifts,” she advised. “People around me had a way of calling attention to my gifts before I recognized them. Listen to the voices. Anyone entering seminary will be facing emotional, intellectual, and financial challenges. Fortunately for me the whole process unfolded gradually. I learned to trust the process. And I would advise anyone else to do that — trust the process.”

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