By Ines M. Chisholm
“I baptize you in the name of the Father…and of the Son…and of the Holy Spirit,” pronounced Father Charles Knapp. Joseph emerged from the plastic baptismal pool smiling and dripping water as the congregation broke into spontaneous applause.
Joseph waited five years to join the Roman Catholic Church; he was transferred from California to Arizona before completing RCIA. With Joseph, five other men received First Communion and seven were confirmed.
It was a rewarding moment for me; I had prepared these inmates for the sacraments. I am a prison minister.
When people learn that I do prison ministry, they say: “Why do you go to prisons?” “Aren’t you afraid to be in there?” and “I could never do that!” In response, let me share my experiences and those of other prison ministers from across the diocese.
Why do you go to prisons?
We serve for many reasons. As Sister Ana Maria Gomez in Florence says, “I see the hunger these people have. They are put aside by everyone and considered the scum of the earth. I want them to see [this] is not who they are.”
Society labels them irredeemable failures, untouchable lepers and dangerous outcasts. Yet they are God’s children; many are members of the Body of Christ, and our brothers and sisters.
Asked why she serves at a prison, Kathy Rhinehart in Tucson replies, “I found that I have a strong desire to reach out to people who are outcast and removed from normal society. I love that I can help them feel connected to ‘normal’ people through the love of God.”
For many the only outsiders they see are the prison ministers because their families live in a different state or country.
For Sister Christine Garcia in Douglas it is the faith and hope she sees in the men she serves that motivates her and Ralph Wildermuth of Sierra Vista. “I can see in their faces what it means to have someone come and give them this good news.”
As Sister Lucy Nigh in Douglas puts it, “I continue to be inspired by the humility and determination of the men I have been privileged to meet while teaching, breaking open the scriptures and building a little community of faith.” We see Christ in them.
Ultimately, we serve in prisons because God leads us there. It is a vocation. Wildermuth says, “It was part of my calling to find lost souls and let them know that God is still there in their lives.”
Prison ministry is about using our gifts to do the work God asks of us.
Aren’t you afraid to be in there?
Jesus said to Jairus, “Do not be afraid; only have faith” (Mk 5:36). When invited to do prison ministry, my first reaction was fear. After prayer and reflection, I decided fear should not determine where I serve God. For many of us, like Pat and John Hail of Florence, prison ministry moves us out of our comfort zone and “challenges us to be aware of injustices…to seek ways to meet the needs of those who suffer them.” God challenges our trust in Him.
The media portray prisons as cauldrons of violence and mayhem. Incidents do occur at times, but security and safety are paramount within prison walls. Guards escort ministers to where they do their services and are around during services. Guards will remove inmates for misconduct but, generally, those attending services want to be there and are authentically seeking God. Moreover, volunteers must attend an orientation on protocols and prison security.
I could never do that!
Not everyone is called to prison ministry, but not all are called to be pianists. There is a great need for prison ministers, and “all that is required,” say John and Pat Hail, “is a willingness to respond to this call.”
We trust that God leads us where He needs us to serve. “As in any ministry,” says Sister Lucy Nigh, “it is a challenge to trust the Spirit’s working – that the little I have to offer is just the right thing for someone…”
God doesn’t call everyone to prison ministry, but the call to minister to the incarcerated is inclusive. All can help.
We can support Catholic non-profit organizations, such as Dismas Ministry (www.dismasministry.org) and Paulist Evangelization Ministries (http://www.pemdc.org/), which provide Catholic Bibles and other religious materials for the incarcerated.
We can read the Statement of the U.S. Catholic Bishops on Crime and Criminal Justice (http://old.usccb.org/sdwp/criminal.shtml) and educate ourselves about prison and victim issues.
And always, we can pray – for the incarcerated and their loved ones, for victims, for prison officials, and for those who minister in prisons.
For “all of us…make up one body in Christ, and…we are all joined to one another” (Rom 12:5).
Editor’s note: Ines M. Chisholm is a Lay Ecclesial Minister at St. James Parish in Coolidge.