Citizens Returning to Our Community

Formally incarcerated individuals face many obstacles in life upon their release from prison. In the past, many of us have used terms or labels, that often foster a negative image of a person who may already have one step down upon returning to their home or establishing a new residence in our community. A returning citizen is far more enhancing than perhaps ex‑con, felon, fugitive, or on probation, etc.

Returning Citizens may struggle with obtaining employment, finding suitable housing, health issues, addictions, and mental health issues. On the flip side returning citizens are tax payers, employed and may be sitting beside you on a Sunday morning. They have a history as do all of us. We are all better people than actions or decisions we made on the worst day of our lives. The gospel message is of forgiveness.  Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?(Matthew 18:21‑22) Of course Jesus tells him Seventy times seven. Although the disciples had been with Jesus for some time, they were still thinking in the limited terms of the law, rather than the unlimited terms of grace and love.

It is important to acknowledge employers, land lords and so many organizations, agencies and individuals who reach out and assist a Returning Citizen. Often it is you as a person who can do so much behind the scenes to assist and welcome a person who has had a difficult past. We recall the old adage but for the grace of God there go I.

This Thursday, March 9th from 7‑8:30pm, the Christian Social Concerns committee of United Churches will be hosting a Zoom discussion entitled Beyond the Bars. This online event will explore the realities of incarceration and ways to faithfully engage our Returning Citizens.

To register: email

Hebrews 13:1‑3 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers… continue to remember those in prison as it you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as it you yourself were suffering.@

-Mr. James Foran, Retired Director of Faith Formation, St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Yokefellow Prison Ministry Board Member, Member of the Pennsylvania Prison Society

Why Can’t We Be Friends?

   One of my commitments with the United Churches of Lycoming County is to participate in regular interfaith panel discussions in a Williamsport middle school health class. The panel usually consists of representatives of various traditions: Christianity (usually with both Protestant and Catholic representation), Judaism, and Islam. The premise is for us to field questions about the positions of each of our traditions on topics that the students have learned about in class. As the teacher explains to them, our goal is not to tell them what to believe but to educate them about what some of the world’s religions believe.
   Occasionally, the questions can be a little more general, which is allowed within the ground rules of the session. The other day, a student asked just such a general question about the origins of each of our traditions. I suspect that some of the students were surprised to learn that all of the faiths represented by our panel were, as our Catholic representative put it, “cousins.” Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all trace their roots to Adam and Eve, as well as God’s promises to Abraham.
   Now, you don’t have to sit in on one of our panels to know that there are divergent beliefs and practices among us. We wouldn’t have evolved into three separate religions if that were not the case. But our three faiths share a lot in common nonetheless. For example, the belief that God calls us to love our neighbor (or more specifically, our fellow human beings), is paramount in all three traditions. In fact, even most of the faiths that would not be considered “cousins” to our three also share this expectation that we should treat our fellow human beings with love, care, and respect.
   This commonality is the main reason I find doing these panels (as well as interfaith work in general) to be so important. We are not just educating the young people in our community about some of the teachings of our respective faith traditions; we are showing them that we can coexist and even cooperate in spite of our differences, a skill that seems to be in short supply these days.
   Some would say that all religions are, at their heart, essentially the same. I am not one of those people. As a Christian, I believe some things that other faiths reject, and vice versa. Even though I am committed to interfaith work, I will not surrender or relinquish those beliefs and teachings that make me a Christian.
   One of those teachings, however, is the parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus told that parable, which is about someone who gave aid to a person in need while others passed him by, as a demonstration of the love we are to show our neighbors. But here’s the thing: the Samaritan was neither Christian (no one would have been until after Jesus’ resurrection) nor was he Jewish. In teaching about loving one’s neighbor, the role model of Jesus’ story was someone outside of his own faith tradition.
   Christians should learn about the specifics of their faith from the Bible, just as Jewish people should from the Torah and Muslims from the Qur’an. But it is, in fact, possible that we can learn how to love our neighbors from one another.
   As the teacher who hosted our interfaith panel said, “They may disagree, but they are still friends.”
   The Interfaith Dialogue Commission (a ministry of United Churches of Lycoming County) sponsors the school panels as well as offering opportunities for interfaith understanding. We have started a Facebook page ( that at the moment is in need of more participation. All are invited to like the page and join the conversation.
-Rev. Jeffrey L. LeCrone, Pastor, St. Luke Lutheran Church Chair, Interfaith Dialogue Commission (United Churches of Lycoming County)

Why Does Faith Matter?

By Fr. John J. Chmil, Pastor, Saint Ann Catholic Church, 1220 Northway Road, Williamsport, PA 17701


Faith matters to me because it gives me hope. Faith teaches me to trust in God. Faith leads me to a deeper understanding of my own life and the mystery that God actively partakes in it.

Here is a story that shook my faith and made me look at life differently.

When I was five years old, I had my tonsils removed. The day before my surgery, I shared a room with a boy named Stephen, who was also five years old. We took a fire truck and race cars into the hallway of the hospital and had fun playing together. We also laughed a lot. I felt like Stephen was my brother.

Before I went to bed that night, I knocked on the glass window that was between Stephen’s bed and my bed. We waved to each other and said goodnight.

In the morning, my mom and dad came to the hospital to wish me well. I felt their love, and, for as nervous as I was, I knew I would be fine. My parents told me they were praying for me, and they would be there for me when the surgery was finished. As I was being wheeled down the hall toward the operating room, I started to cry.

The next day, after I woke up from a good night’s rest, I looked for Stephen. I didn’t see him through the glass window. I thought he, too, had some type of surgery. As the day went on, Stephen never returned to his room. I felt sad and did not understand what had happened. A few days later, my parents took me home.

When I was in my thirties, I talked to my parents about being in the hospital and having my tonsils removed. I asked my mother if she knew what had happened to Stephen. She began to cry and told me that while I was in surgery, Stephen passed away.

I asked my mother how Stephen died. She said a nurse in the hospital told her he had leukemia. I asked my mother why his parents never visited him. She said that on the day Stephen died, his parents were burying his brother who died of the same disease.

After my mom told me about Stephen, I cried. Stephen’s death did not make sense. However, when I placed my faith in God, I began to look at Stephen’s life – and my life – differently. My despair led me to raise my heart and mind to Jesus. I began to think of the hope that Jesus gives humanity by his life, death, and Resurrection. I thought of Stephen looking at God face-to-face, whereas I can only believe in Him.

In a life of faith, Advent is a season of hope. It leads to the birth of Our Savior. I trust Jesus, and I pray that he is the light that will pierce our darkness in this time of waiting.

The Need To Access Priorities Is Essential

By The Reverend Dr. Ronald Shellhamer. Pastor Ron is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and is a retired missionary to West Africa and the Aboriginal Tribes of Northern Canada. He, too, serves in The Presbyterian Church/USA

“One day a person in the crowd said to him (Jesus), ‘Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.’ But he (Jesus) said to him, ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you ?’ And he (Jesus) said to them, ‘Take Care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.’ Then he (Jesus) told them a parable: ‘The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he (the rich man) thought to himself, “What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?” Then he (the rich man) said, “I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years: relax, eat, drink and be merry.” But God said to him, “You fool!! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?” So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich towards God’” (Luke 12:13-21 NRSV).

Priorities! Arranging matters which are most essential beginning with that which is most important. Priorities! Making a list of what needs to be thought about and acted upon with regularity. Jesus, in the passage above, is pressing/encouraging us to consider our priorities both in the immediate short term and with vision for the long haul.

Without knowing it, we act on simple priorities each day: getting up in the morning for starters. We might get ready for work. We might have our breakfast to gain physical strength for what lies ahead for the day. We might engage in prayer as we embark on the routine(s) which follow.

Jesus pushes us to think further, as it applies to material possessions, our financial security, and thoughts as to how our possessions might control our thinking, crowding out what is most important. This priority thinking might begin with reflections on our relationships: God first, then each other, followed by actively participating in making our world a better place through a myriad of pathways and channels, which cry out for our attention.

The Lord loves us too much to control or dominate our decisions as to what is most important. Nevertheless, he is quite pointed in the parable mentioned.

In the end, what are the priorities in each of our lives? Truly, where is our heart when we consider the treasures we store in our barns of property, house, and financial silos?

Jesus tries to share with us that the decisions we make will either lead us to greater fulfillment in him or the lack of it. This is truly a “matter of faith.”

Wanting The Best For Each Other

By Rev. Gwen N. Bernstine, Pastor, Lycoming Presbyterian Church, Newberry

When I walk around my neighborhood, I think about the families living in the houses and lift them up to God, wanting the best for them. On most of our walks, one or more of our neighbors are outside and say hello and sometimes chat a bit.

These walks, several times a day, benefit our dog Truffles, and he gets “bent out of shape” if neighbors don’t speak to him or come over and pet him. He also gets dejected if we have chosen a bad time to go for a walk, when no neighbors are outside. The other day a dejected Truffles was headed home when he saw a young man, a perfect stranger, walking down the street. Truff pranced right up, tail wagging, and made a new friend.

News stories show that many of us are much better at making new enemies than making new friends. We differ on many issues, including abortion, gun control, the death penalty, health care, and human sexuality. Stories show us models of behavior that exclude people from being valued co-workers or neighbors. Sometimes these stories seem to exclude us from living on the same planet.

I am disheartened when people expect us to believe the same things. We do not grow when we are not challenged by new and different ideas that cause us to reassess our beliefs. When we value diverse opinions, I think this will help us better value each other and care for each other.

One of the basic tenants of all people of faith is that we are to “love one another” (John 13:34 ESV). That is not an optional request, but we are expected to look at people as worthy, not expendable. We must care for each other. Maya Angelou, using a quote attributed to Carl W. Buehner, once said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” We can never go wrong with making others feel valued, worthy, and special. Saint Paul, in his letter to the congregations in Galatia urges us to “bear one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2).

When we care for each other, we want the best for them. That is why I start my walk lifting my neighbors up in prayer. The blessing of peace/shalom is central to many faith traditions. Many Christian congregations share or pass the peace during worship. The Muslim faith tradition, Islam, comes from the words al-silm and istaslama, which translated mean “peace.” And both of our Jewish congregations in Lycoming County have the word Sholom in their title. This blessing is an active power for healing, building, and sustaining relationships.

The blessing of Shalom, Peace be With You, tells people we love them, that we want to help bear their burdens, that we want the best for them, and that they are in our prayers. Go out in our community in Peace!

The Pledge

Mr. James Foran, retired Director of Religious Education
Saint Joseph the Worker Parish

 In the greater Williamsport area, we note a wonderful mix of individuals from many diverse backgrounds from around the globe who find either a permanent or temporary home in our community. During our Little League week, it is so heartwarming to see such a spirit of joy, unity, and good sportsmanship among players, coaches, and so many visitors. People from our community should be commended for their outpouring of welcome to so many visitors in so many ways.

What does our Bible say about unity? Psalm 133:1 states, “how good…it is when God’s people live together in unity!” St. Paul, in the letter to the Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Unfortunately, at times more and more, we seem to have a lack of respect for someone who has a different opinion and feels strongly. Recently someone spoke about a meeting he attended and the lack of civility and basic respect to a fellow human being.

In a meaningful way, United Churches of Lycoming County attempts to be an organization that strives to “live the Gospel message.” Yes, we can come from many backgrounds with different understandings, but are we not called to “love one another, since love comes from God,” as Saint John states so beautifully (1 John 4:7)?

Romans 12:16 states, “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” In a time of strife on so many levels within the nation and around the globe, perhaps we can attempt “to do our bit.”

Long after this year’s Little League Championship team has been declared and people have returned to their own countries and communities, it may be good for all of us to be mindful of The Little League Pledge.

The Pledge reads: “I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws. I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always do my best.”

Created For Purpose

By Tiffany J Haller, Director of Religious Education & Youth Ministry
St. Ann Catholic Church

When I was asked to write a “Faith Matters” article, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I enjoy writing and thought it would be a good experience. Then, as the deadline approached, I had a question. What is the purpose of “Faith Matters”? The answer: usually it involves socially relevant topics. An example was the recent shootings. I then thought to myself, “Oh, Lord! I do not want to go there! It is too hard, too devastating, too controversial. Then there are COVID, masking, and vaccines. There is the war in the Ukraine. The rise of anxiety and depression as a result of all of these occurrences is at an all time high. If we have learned anything through all of this, it is that life is unpredictable and we all suffer. And this is why faith matters.

As the Holy Spirit does, He showed up in a big way for me today. When listening to podcasts while working, I noticed the app shuffled podcasts in an order I would not have chosen. However, Ave Spotlight Episode 94 “Saints Who Struggled with Mental Issues” with Tommy Teigle popped up while I was too involved in my work to change what I was listening to. The saints are people we may feel very out of touch with. Weren’t they “perfect” people who lived some type of idealistic life? Most lived decades, if not centuries, before our time. What could they possibly have to teach us? But as I listened, I was reminded that, as humans, we have more in common than we often realize. There were several saints mentioned in the discussion: women and men from all different walks of life and time periods. I was familiar with all of them, but I was not aware that they all suffered from mental illness to various degrees. These were real people who had suicide idealizations due to the desperate state of their minds and lives. But God had better plans, and by His grace, they were able to overcome their suffering and live extraordinary lives.

What is God trying to tell you in your suffering? We were all created in love, such love that our hearts and minds cannot even fathom it! Each of us was created in love, by love, and for a specific purpose. We all have a purpose that no one else can fill. No one else was created in the family, the community, or the time in history as you. The statistics for our specific existence are astonishing! So, I would like to ask, what is your heart’s ache? If there were one thing you could change, what would it be? That is a very good indication as to your purpose, your calling to make this world a better place and your distinct contribution to this unpredictable world. Could it be that our suffering can teach us and offer us a way to find solutions to some of the challenges we face? Through it, we are uniquely able to help others who come after and alongside us.

Yes, we are living in trying and devastating times. May I offer that we are the solution. Faith matters because through it we are called to higher things: things we cannot achieve in our own strength but in God’s loving plan for us. Philippians 1:6 states: “Being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus” (NIV).

Reflections And Renewal

By Mrs. Gail Landers, member of New Covenant United Church of Christ
United Churches of Lycoming County’s Christian Social Concerns Committee

Experts define pilgrimage as “a journey to a sacred place or shrine, a long journey or search.”

A decade ago, a long-awaited journey with my just-graduated seminarian and youngest daughter, now an ordained pastor with the United Church of Christ, welcomed the end of May. It was a retreat to the peace-filled Island of Iona with Oasis Ministries for Spiritual Development. Accessibility was limited via two ferries.

Our life journeys are always in progress, more than one big list. Being off the beaten path in the Sea of Hebrides, due West of Oban, Scotland and the Isle of Mull, sits the three and a half mile long and one mile wide Island of Iona.

It is just half the size of my first week-long island exploration off the coast of Boston: Thompson Island.

There is no need for cairns direction on this sacred ground, full of history. The mixing of Celtic Christianity and Pagan traditions blends from the founding by Saint Columba.

When people asked me what I did there, “Did you stay in a castle?”, I find it difficult to give an understandable answer. When you have your senses heightened through the beauty of nature, new bird songs and sightings, historical memories at your feet, fresh air and late night light; walk around sheep scat bedecked with flowers; view flowers growing through rocks-new life from the old past; freedom to walk off trail (with respect to closing any gates/styles) to roam the land of endless mounds of grass and stones, I had one of the simplest, healthiest, and rewarding pleasures of life: “the walk.”

Robert Reber, managing editor of Illinois Stewardship, refers to “the walk” as “one of life’s most intimate experiences with nature.”

When eyes and hearts are opened to the beauty of nature and our human connection to it, new awakenings occur. Sometimes this is referred to as an “ah ha” moment. The ability to connect is realized. Respect for the colorful embedded stones and labyrinth root the history of Iona, mirrored through the legacy of Columba.

Later this month, I will join another pilgrimage stateside, this time to the Southwest and the Ghost Ranch of New Mexico, two hours from Albuquerque. It was formerly the residence of artist Georgia O’Keefe and is now under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church. My sister will be joining me, along with a small group of other Oasis Ministry travelers.

Like the spiritual gifts of strengthening that the apostle Paul shared with the Romans, we will be hoping for what is not seen and waiting with patience and renewing of minds, “rejoicing in hope and persevering in prayers, extending hospitality to strangers and living peaceably with all” (Romans 12:12-13).

“Sometimes one must travel far to discover what is near” Uri Shulevits, The Treasure.

“Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe, even if it is a tree that stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do, even if it is a long way from here. Hold on to your life, even if it is easier to let go. Hold on to my hand, even if someday I will be gone away” Pueblo Prayer.