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Former Inmate Helped Launch Living Stones

June 17, 2016

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

An older man sits at his desk smiling for the photographer

The late Rev.John Kenton O’Neal, a former WCC inmate who later became a pastor, helped found the congregation in 2006 See photo gallery...

Pastor John Kenton O’Neal had a special understanding of the loneliness and anguish inmates can feel during their incarceration. He once served time in prison himself.

O’Neal had no idea, when he was sent to the Washington Corrections Center, WCC for manslaughter in 1968, that he’d later come back as a pastor and help found the Living Stones Prison Congregation. The congregation, housed at WCC, is now one of only 20 recognized prison congregations in the country.

O’Neal served an 18-month prison sentence for the conviction out of King County. “I was convinced my life was over. It is very difficult to explain the feelings of guilt, aloneness, fear, and complete misery I was experiencing,” he once said during a sermon given at WCC. O’Neal died in 2010 at age of 94. “My self-image was at ground zero.”

During O’Neal’s prison stay, his church pastor visited him every month, according to his wife, the Rev. Margaret O’Neal. After John O’Neal was released from prison in 1971, he was still wracked with guilt and despair over his crime and lost contact with most of his family.

Prior to O’Neal’s prison stay, he had struggled with alcohol abuse. The pastor who had visited O’Neal in prison was concerned about O’Neal starting to drink again and convinced him to go to the Holden Village Lutheran Retreat Center on Lake Chelan in the hopes he could restart his life in a new setting there.

While there, O’Neal met Margaret and another pastor, Carroll Hinderlie, who was also the center’s director. Hinderlie is the man O’Neal and Margaret credited for helping him come to terms with his past, quit his substance abuse and begin a new life for himself.

“He (Hinderlie) had just taken him apart and put him together again,” Margaret said. “He taught John you can’t start a new life unless you know of God’s forgiveness. It was a real turning point in his life.”

In the years after he left Holden Village, he was invited by the chaplain supervisor at WCC to enter a “clinical pastoral education” program, an internship that gives students a chance to offer spiritual support to people in hospitals, nursing homes and prisons. O’Neal served as an intern chaplain at the prison, a position he held for three years.

O’Neal eventually became an ordained minister in 1992 at the age of 76. He was a pastor at various churches around western Washington, but Margaret said the chaplaincy at WCC was a unique experience because his work was a constant reminder of the time he spent there as an inmate.

“He found it very redeeming, to help men who were incarcerated,” Margaret recalls. “At the same time, he often talked about how much it meant for him to know that when he walked through those prison gates, he could walk back through them at the end of the day.”

After he became a minister, he often visited the prison with other pastors, offering spiritual guidance to inmates.

He stayed involved in ministry work until shortly before his death. One of his final accomplishments was helping to launch the Living Stones. While O’Neal was at seminary, he met Ed Nesselhuff, a pastor who had started a prison congregation in Maryland. It was so successful there, Nesselhuff made it his mission to bring congregations to prisons across America. O’Neal and Nesselhuff collaborated with other local pastors, community members and the Department of Corrections and began the Living Stones Prison Congregation in 2006

The Living Stones is a joint ministry with the congregation of the Southwestern Washington Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

See also the Living Stones Prison Congregation Provides Hope, Solace for WCC Inmates article by Rachel Friederich.

For more information or how to volunteer, visit Livingstones Prison Congregation website.