Sunday, July 13, 2008

Prison Ministry: Testimony From Those Who Serve

Catholic Ponderings Special Prison Ministry Edition

Guest Contributors: Tom and Gail

Why Am I Involved in Prison Ministry?

Five years ago two friends asked my husband and I to attend a meeting in a prison on a Saturday evening. We had been involved with an ecumenical prison ministry before this, and we knew a bit about what occurred generally, so we accepted and visited the maximum security prison...along with several other laypeople from various parts of the Western New York area. We walked in singing a Christian Song and then those on the retreat sang one in response.

Everyone said “Hi”, we sat down in with the team members and “men in green” at their tables. We then heard a talk that one of the team members had prepared on “Peace”. The individuals at tables then went up to the podium and the prisoners shared what had touched them during that particular day. Afterwards, we mingled with the group and went out of the facility about half an hour later. We joined with the team at a local church school that served as their headquarters...where they stayed overnight from Friday through Sunday.

"I was touched with how Jesus
was using these lay people
and guiding them to bring
the “men in green” closer to God"

There the teams themselves shared “Close Moments with Jesus” during the weekend thus far. And frankly, I was touched with how Jesus was using these lay people and guiding them to bring the “men in green” closer to God. These Catholics were strong in their faith and were not scared to share their own faith with the men and each other.

The team asked if we would want to go on a prison weekend and be “Rookies” at the next prison weekend...and after my husband and I glanced at one another...we decided to do so. A “Rookie” sits at the table with another team member and learns how to lead the men into discussions that the talks raise so they can share themselves. He or she does not do any talk on that weekend.

The team' consisting of the Rector and 15 or more Lay persons, who are prayerfully chosen to be on team by the next Rector (person in charge and MC of the weekend.) He/she are guided by the Holy Spirit in selecting who is asked to do what talks for the weekend. Then there are three meetings for the team to “bond” and critique the talks to be given on the weekend. This REC is based on a Cursillo Retreat Weekend, only instead of three days, we give the retreat in two long days, including two masses and time for the priests to hear confessions.

As I prepare for the individual retreats, I have learned to seek the Lord in writing the talks and trying to listen to His leadings. Fortunately, I have my husband to give me ideas and look over my talk before having to read it in front of the team. Our team prays together and becomes bonded in love. We become the Body of Christ, helping one another, praying for one another, and praying for the team, their families, priests, deacons, and men in green as well as the guards and supervisors for the weekend. We ask other Christian friends to keep the entire team and weekend in their prayers because we are only the channels of God's love and it is the prayers from others that moves the Holy Spirit to touch the 'men in green” and bring them back to Jesus, the sacraments, and the Mass.

Love from your sister-in-the-Lord,



Tom's thoughts:

I was asked to give some thoughts on working with a prison ministry. My first thought is that I wouldn't be involved without the support of my wife, Gail. I tend to be a procrastinator and even in writing these notes, she has had to “encourage” me. Sorry Kelly, for taking so long...

If someone would have suggested, years ago, that we would go into prison and share our faith with the incarcerated, I wouldn't have believed them. But through a series of events, we somehow got involved and it's become part of our life for the last five years. I receive much more than I give in working this ministry.

We come into prison for a weekend each spring and fall with a Catholic group, called REC (Residents Encounter Christ). We go as a group and share our experiences as members of the Body of Christ with the purpose of bringing the incarcerated closer to Christ.

The weekend basically consists of a series of talks which follow a theme. Saturday of the weekend starts out with talks that focus on our need for God, how we fail as as humans and how Jesus cares and will forgive us. Between talks there are discussion periods at each table. A talk that always fosters discussion is the “Prodigal Son” talk. Many of these “men in green” have never encountered a loving father in their lives.

The day progresses with the opportunity for everyone to receive the sacrament of Reconciliation and later Mass is celebrated. It is heartwarming to the team when sometimes we see everyone go to confession or to hear an inmate share with us that this was his first confession in 20-some years. The weekend progresses with the theme of Sunday morning being, “Rising to New Life”. The closing ceremony for the weekend on Sunday evening is a Mass and is a joyous celebration. We include a lot of music, singing and laughter during the weekend.

"The Holy Spirit needs time
to work not only in these men
but myself as well."

We believe that we go into prison to “build bridges” and to “plant seeds”. Are we successful? It is not up to us to judge this; it is up to God. We see some individuals that don't initially seem to be affected by the weekend but they may keep coming back for several weekends. It must have some positive effect on them. We see a few that have obviously changed. We need to realize that these men have not only man made walls around them but also self made walls to keep others out. These same type of walls keep me from becoming the person I was meant to be. The Holy Spirit needs time to work not only in these men but myself as well.

We're all called by God to share His love, to evangelize. One of the most important things for us on the team to remember, is to treat “the men in green” with dignity. They are treated with very little of any dignity while incarcerated. After all, these guys are behind bars because they weren't nice guys. We have to be aware of that, but they are human beings, children of God and we must treat them with dignity.

In closing my part, I ask two questions:

What can I do to reduce the violence in our culture ?

Are the prints I leave behind, Peace Prints ?

Your brother-in-Christ,


PS – Yes, we do eat the prison food for the weekend. It gives us something to offer up...


Nick ("Catholic Dude") said...

Very interesting. I am glad to have known about this because until now I only knew of the Protestant prison ministry by Chuck Coleson (who is friendly to Catholics).

This is one of those topics most of us (ie myself) forget to think and pray about, but it is just as important as any other evangelization.

God Bless

Kelly said...

I agree with you Nick. I am truly blessed to know Tom and Gail through our parish community. This is indeed a ministry which gets very little attention and most people do not realize how many individuals are 'wearing green' - each a creation of God and in need of a Savior just like you and I. God bless those who serve and go where so few are willing to even think about.

Renee said...

What a wonderful ministry! I am involved in Kairos Outside (a ministry for family members of incarcerated). The pain incarceration inflicts upon the "outside" family is just as impactful as to the incarcerated.
Belief systems aside, Jesus calls us to "tend" to these needs... and with hope and prayer, these ministries will help reduce the need for these ministries!
God bless you~and God bless all who heed His call!
p.s. for Nick
I have a cousin who works for Chuck Colson's Prison Fellowship

Backwoods said...

Prison ministry is one of the most demanding ministries out there.

It is also one of the most discouraging. I have seen many workers fall off after a prisoner they have been working with falls back into their old life of sin.

But, it can be one of the most rewarding as well. Many times the ones you get to work with make some of the best disciples you have ever seen. Because, quite often they have reached the bottom and are ready to be raised up.

May the Lord bless your ministry greatly and may your heart be uplifted by your service to Him.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment being both a correction officer and a holder of a masters degree in Theology.

I'm a firm believer in the REC program. I'm sure it can be frustrating at times but I do see some good coming from it, even if some go back to their old ways.

No doubt about it, prison ministry and be the most rewarding and most frustrating ministry that one can do, and many burn out after a few years. It is one of the most demanding ministries because you probably will never see this person again once they are paroled. You may never know if you had made a difference.

This is where faith comes in. Faith in Jesus Christ who calls all of us to conversion, and faith in ourselves knowing that we did the best we could in less than ideal situations.