Monday, November 8, 2010

Chaplain tends to members of the flock serving time

By Valerie Zehl • • November 6, 2010, 5:50 pm

On Sundays, Cris Mogenson can be found serving behind an altar or in a pew with his family.

On weekdays, look for him in jail.

For a decade now, Cris, 49, has served as coordinating chaplain in Broome County's correctional facility.

Only once did an inmate get in his face.

"It sounds like you're trying to threaten me," Cris snapped. "Listen, I'm the only friend you've got in here."

That lion became a lamb.

Now, Cris looks with a parent's pride at the former prisoners he calls "success stories."

He fights exasperation with the ones he sees behind bars again and again. It can be frustrating, this jailhouse ministry, but it's his calling and he wouldn't have it any other way.

He did try.

Answering an altar call in 1979 at the Maranatha Church of the Nazarene near his home in Bergen County, New Jersey, started him on a course he resisted with all his might.

"I had a real wrestling with God," he says. "For me, if I didn't enter into full-time ministry, to call myself a Christian would be a fraud."

His eye was on a career in medicine, but like Jonah dumped on an unexpected shore, he soon found himself a seminarian.

In 1992 he was ordained in the Church of the Nazarene. His first assignment: a Latino congregation.

"Here's a kid who flunked Spanish in high school, and my first church is a mile from the border of Mexico," Cris jokes.

He served as pastor elsewhere, including at the Free Methodist congregation near his current home in Windsor, but the "adminis-trivia" of heading a congregation took him from the hands-on work he loved most.

He had worked the front lines of the battle for men's souls before -- with prisoners during college and as a drug and alcohol counselor at the Salvation Army facility on Griswold Street in Binghamton -- and he felt drawn to jail ministry again.

One phone call alerted him to an opening with his present employer, the Broome County Council of Churches, where he's a listening ear to the prisoners and those who deal with them.

Part of his job has him intercepting little ones when they get off the school bus because Mommy can't be there. She was just put in jail.

His border collie ("We jokingly call her 'the borderline collie,' he says) came to him by way of a prisoner who suddenly found himself in no position to care for the canine.

"I can't do that too often, obviously," he says, hands splayed. If he could, though, he probably would. He's known to be that kind of guy.

He just about gushes when he talks about the Jail Ministry staff and volunteers, 100 or so individuals who make him shake his head in admiration when words fail him.

Elizabeth Hayes, part of the Jail Ministry team, points out that they could confine their efforts to working with prisoners while they're incarcerated. Instead the team chooses to reach out for the greater good. She designed and wrote grants for a reentry program, which supports prisoners when they get out of jail.

"He's interested in giving Christmas to the inmates and to their children," she says. "He includes the families and takes an interest in what happens after their time in jail is ended."

One of her and Cris' favorite programs is also that of their boss, the Rev. Dr. Joseph Sellepack, executive director of the BCCC.

"In their literacy program, they have inmates read books into a voice recorder to be converted into a CD, then they send the book and CD home to the inmates' children," "Dr. Joe" says.

Cris deals with a very tough population at the jail, including many with mental illness, Dr. Joe points out, yet Cris can see beyond external barriers to the hearts of those he serves.

County Sheriff David Harder is in charge of the jail.

Of Cris, he says: "Very hardworking and always ready to help other people, despite his own problems."

Those problems come in the form of an ongoing sorrow: Son Bradley has an incurable mitochondrial disease and autism that tightly circumscribe his life. Brother Wesley, 18, and sister Kristin, 16, attend the Oak Tree program at BOCES. Both have been diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome.

"I like Daddy to read to me," says Bradley, 11. Cris is their youth leader at the Windsor United Methodist Church they and their mom, Cheryl, attend.

"It's nice to have another clergyperson in the congregation," says Pastor Douglas Clark.

Cris switched his ordination over to the Free Methodist Church in 1997, and now fills in at Presbyterian, Lutheran and other pulpits as needed. He tends to the flock of those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS at Southern Tier AIDS Program (STAP) retreats. His extended family of faith also includes Baptists, Catholics and Muslims -- such as fellow chaplains Father Stan Gerlock and Imam Kasim Kapuz."We're very ecumenical," Cris says with a grin.

His calendar bulges with board and other group meetings, and he's regional manager of the American Correctional Chaplains Association, overseeing the Northeast from Virginia to Maine. His hours at home are precious, and precious few.

"I know he looks forward to the opportunities when he can take the boys fishing," Cheryl says.

He talks to his kids about God's love, about seeing themselves and others as God sees them -- the same message he brings into the hearts of prisoners.

"I tell them we're a mirror reflecting God's image, but sometimes that mirror is cracked or tarnished," Cris says. "But it can be repaired."

Volunteer information

If you're interested in donating time to the Jail Ministry or other projects of the Broome County Council of Churches, call (607) 724-9130 or visit

At a glance

Name: Cris Mogenson.

Age: 49.

Hometown: River Edge, N.J.; now lives in Windsor.

Family: Wife Cheryl; sons Bradley, 11, and Wesley, 18; daughter Kristin, 16.

Most unexpected hobbies: Civil War reenactor; actor in dinner theater at church; musician and music collector -- everything from the Bulgarian Women's Choir to Pygmy Water Drums to Kansas -- but Celtic is his all-time favorite.

Self-assessment from 1979: "Jesus freak, driving a VW van."

Previous jobs: Volunteer firefighter; emergency medical services technician; residential director of inner-city rescue mission, then its executive director; chaplain at Herr's Snack Foods factory (quote from fellow Jail Ministry teammate Father Stan Gerlock: "So you were the chip monk.")

Personal experiences he doesn't talk much about: Having heard an "almost-audible" voice counseling him to stop what he was doing and go to the school -- where circumstances converged at that instant to put him into his first pastoring position.

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