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Pastor Beth Harbaugh begins new role helping incarcerated women

The Rev. Beth Harbaugh makes pancakes for a Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras event for the first day of Lent. Harbaugh stepped down as the Fairfield First United Methodist Church pastor to take on a new role ministering to women in prison. (Photo submitted)
The Rev. Beth Harbaugh makes pancakes for a Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras event for the first day of Lent. Harbaugh stepped down as the Fairfield First United Methodist Church pastor to take on a new role ministering to women in prison. (Photo submitted)
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FAIRFIELD — Fairfield First United Methodist Church pastor Beth Harbaugh has preached her last sermon at the church and will be taking on a new role.

Harbaugh’s next assignment begins Thursday. It’s a statewide ministry through the Iowa Methodist Church called Women at the Well. The program focuses on women in prison or who have just been released from prison and are on their way to reintegrating into society.

Iowa has 10 state penitentiaries, and nine of those are for men. The one for women is in Mitchellville, near Des Moines. Harbaugh will work out of the Immanuel United Methodist Church in Des Moines.

Harbaugh said she is looking forward to the new position because prison ministry is dear to her heart. She quoted the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus calls upon his followers to take care of the orphan, the widow and the prisoner.

“The Apostle Paul, who wrote half of the New Testament, was in jail a lot,” Harbaugh said. “A lot of his letters — Romans, Ephesians and Corinthians — were letters written from jail.”

Harbaugh said she feels strongly that the United States needs to reform the way it approaches incarceration.

“The United States has way more prisoners than other countries,” Harbaugh said. “It’s crazy how many we have. A lot of them are people of color, and a lot of these people are mentally ill or they’ve been traumatized in their lives.”

She said almost all of them have some kind of recovery they need to do.

“In our country, we put these people in prison,” Harbaugh said. “Some of them probably need to have healthy boundaries, sometimes solitary confinement, but that would be only a small number. The majority need mental help, and they need training, restorative training, because they are going back out into society.”

Harbaugh said her program focuses specifically on “restorative justice.” It’s about reforming prisoners so that they can be healthy, productive people once they leave behind the prison walls. She said that hasn’t always been the focus of America’s penal system, which she described as focusing on punishment.

One wrinkle in Harbaugh’s ministry is that, because of the coronavirus, she and other ministers are not allowed into the prisons. The United Methodist Church even had an office inside the prison at one point, but the prison made a policy change and now the clergy are not permitted.

“These people [inmates] are not allowed any church service, and we’re very limited in what we can give them in writing,” Harbaugh said.

The United Methodist Church, like many others, has shifted its focus to online sermons, a “Zoom ministry.” But those programs aren’t allowed in the prison. Nor are the religious radio programs being produced.

Harbaugh said she appreciates the fact that the prison is taking the coronavirus seriously. So far, it seems to have worked, because there are no confirmed cases at the women’s prison in Mitchellville.

Harbaugh describes Women at the Well as in a “state of transition” because the prison is denying it access. The ministry has been able to help women in the halfway houses who are about to leave prison.

Harbaugh said the average woman in prison is a single woman with children who has been there for 4 1/2 months. She said very few are hardened criminals. They’re just people who need help getting their life back on track. She said she’s looking forward to having those healing conversations with people about how they’re not a bad person, about how God loves everybody.

“God lets it rain on everybody’s field,” she said.