I have been asked to give a talk at a local high school in a few months about prison ministry, so in preparation for that event, I thought I would lay out some thoughts here on my experiences.
For starters, I came of age in the Catholic Worker movement. When I became a Catholic at age eighteen my first involvement with living out my faith, in word and deed, came from serving the poor in the inner-city through a Catholic Worker shelter.
It is easy to quarantine people into boxes such as “Social Justice Warriors” or “Rigid” Catholics, but we are called to live our faith with works, as is written in the book of James:
What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that? Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.
But someone may well say, “You have faith and I have works; show me your faith without the works, and I will show you my faith by my works.” You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. But are you willing to recognize, you foolish fellow, that faith without works is useless? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected; and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way? For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26)
For all the flaws in the Catholic Worker movement, I still admire the “Entertaining Angels” philosophy of Dorothy Day, who took the command of Jesus to serve the poor and perform the works of mercy very literally; we do these works, she said, simply because He told us to do so.
It is also interesting that in Matthew 25 – on Judgment Day – the Lord comes and uses our own works as the determination of our fate:
Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Mt 25:34-36).
Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life. (Matthew 25: 34-36; 41-46)
The Literal Call to Serve
So, in my twenties, I also tried to be as literal as I could in putting the words of Jesus into practice. Riding my bike after work one day, I saw a homeless man with no shoes; so I took off my $200 Italian leather hiking boots and put them on his feet and rode home barefoot. Ridiculous? Perhaps. But Gospel mandates are kind of ridiculous, so I thought it best to just live them out without regard for the cost. Many a holy fool has been known to do the same.
After I graduated from high school with few prospects for a job, I lived off my savings for a year and embraced a life of voluntary poverty helping to run a House of Hospitality for homeless men with drug and alcohol addictions in a rough section of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The group was not religious as a whole, and it was an unstructured, non-hierarchical community (for better or worse). We fed the hungry and ate in the soup kitchen ourselves, gave shelter to those who needed it, visited and tended to the sick, and helped those who needed financial assistance when we were able.
Going to Prison
It was also at this time that I went to prison, that is, I started assisting the chaplain at the local county prison with his work. I would make individual visits to men who requested them, assist at Mass when a priest was available and lead a weekly “chapel talk” bible study group. I would also write to men as a Pen Pal. I did this fifteen hours a week for a year or so. After I left the Catholic Worker community, I didn’t do prison ministry officially for a number of years but would make individual visits to some guys at the state penitentiary.
A few years ago I was able to get clearances through a Catholic parish for prison ministry at the local country prison. It took about six months to get the permissions. Once a month, on the fourth Wednesday, I spend an hour and a half with a group of thirty to forty men of all races and backgrounds in medium security. In the time allotted, I conduct a small service of the Word.
The Power of the Word
Typically, I let the Word of God speak for itself and simply read scripture aloud and pause periodically to offer some instruction. I always give my reflections from a Catholic perspective, even though many of the men are not Catholic. It can be a fine line to walk, so I tend to stick to the basics: sin, redemption, the Fall, concupiscence, the need for a Savior, the necessity of baptism, freedom, and the moral law. Together we have read through most of the Epistles (I find Romans to be particularly well-suited for those in prison) and have started on the Gospels as well.
In my teachings I sometimes strongly challenge the men to think and reflect in a way that makes the Gospel message real to their lives. For example, in one large group, I was going over the Ten Commandments. When it came to the Fifth Commandment, I said to them, “Do you know this Commandment forbids murder? Do you know that it is a grave sin and offense against God to murder…and that includes babies in the womb? Let me ask you, have you ever taken a girlfriend to an abortion clinic? If so, you have blood on your hands, you are culpable!”
The room went dead silent, and I wanted that message to sink in. Many times there are sins that we are not aware of, and though it seems unfathomable that someone would not realize that something as grave as abortion is a sin, we have to take into account the environments these guys grew up in. My talk may have been the first time they ever heard a message like that. My hope in these instances is they may be convicted and “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37) and in the silence of their cell come to a sincere repentance.
Takes Time to Sink In
The term “jailhouse religion” is noteworthy. It may be characterized as a “sudden desperate piety of an inmate who is in dire straits and hopes that God will somehow bail him out.” Like most people who have worked “on the inside,” the dynamic manifests itself from time to time in a kind of overzealousness and confidence among inmates. As one inmate once told me, “It’s easy to be clean on the inside.”
The ultimate thing I try to get across to them, however, is that the peace, freedom, and redemption found in faith is something that can never be taken away from a man, regardless of his conditions. It is St. Paul’s “secret” and the reason why he finds himself content in all circumstances (Philippians 4:12). Freedom comes from the inside and can only truly be found on the inside as well.
If you feel called to work in prison ministry, a few practical notes may be in order:
- Patience will serve you well. You need to remember that you are a guest, and the guards can deny you entrance for any reason. Don’t bring anything in that is not allowed (contraband). Follow the rules. The guards have a job to do as well, and you’re on their turf.
- Never ask inmates what they are “in for.” Not only is that common courtesy, but it also keeps us from presuming things about them or pre-judging them.
- Be authentic. Those in prison have a way of cutting through the BS and sizing a person up very quickly. Carry yourself well, with confidence but without bravado or an air of superiority. You have to balance not being too hardened with not being too much of a pushover.
- Always remember that redemption can come to any man or woman, so don’t write anyone off. It’s not your job to stand in judgment but to provide a listening ear or a word of encouragement in the way of life lessons or, simply, the Word.
- Always remember where you are: prison. Don’t get too comfortable. I’ve never had any threats to my safety, but you want to be on guard always without being paranoid. There is a reason the inmates are there.
Prison ministry can be a great blessing, but it is also work. There are many times I am tired and don’t feel like vising a prison. But I always pray to be used by the Holy Spirit as an instrument of God’s grace, praying for just one man to hear something that he needs to hear that evening. One of my friend’s calls prison work the “ministry of just showing up.” Just making the effort, communicating to the inmates that someone cares enough to come with no expectation of any kind of return, to share the Gospel – these can be enough to get a man questioning. And curiosity is often the first step towards authentic conversion.