Go directly to jail

Even before the HBO series Oz, most people were fearful of stepping foot inside the Big House. But prison ministry isn’t just for a brave few, argues J. Peter Nixon. All Catholics are called to visit the prisoner in their local correction facility.

HE WAS SIX FEET TALL, WITH A BLONDE CREW CUT and powerful muscles that filled out his orange prison jumpsuit. He grunted an assent when we asked him to sign in but returned to his seat quickly without engaging anyone in conversation.

During the service, I saw a single tear run down his cheek, then two more in quick succession. After the closing hymn, I walked over to him and laid a tentative hand on his shoulder, wanting to see if he was all right.

The next thing I knew his arms were wrapped around me and he was sobbing into my shoulder. I don’t know how long we stood there holding each other. Finally we separated. I asked him if he needed to talk. He said, “No, I’m just carrying some heavy things in my heart right now.” I told him I would be praying for him. He left, and I watched him walk back down the hill to the barracks.

It is experiences like this that have kept me coming back to the county jail near our parish for the last five years. I’m part of a parish team that organizes a weekly Communion service for the inmates. More recently I’ve become involved in an ecumenical prison ministry movement known as Kairos that tries to build stable Christian communities in prisons.

Like most of us, I never really thought much about prisoners until I had a personal connection with the prison system. In 1999 a friend of mine living on the East Coast was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison. Unable to visit him in person because of the distance that separated us, I began to feel a call to reach out to prisoners in my own community.

But it was a call I resisted for a long time. I was afraid, but my fears actually had little to do with my physical safety. I was more worried about losing face, of being open to men who might take advantage of that openness. I also worried that differences in race or class would make it impossible for us to find common ground. Lacking any obvious skills for this kind of work, I had to trust that God would give me what I needed. Over time I’ve gradually become more comfortable being inside jails and prisons and spending time with the people that live in them.

One of the things that confirms me in my decision to keep doing this work is the reaction I get when I tell people about it. It’s not that they react negatively; for the most part I find people are very supportive. Rather it’s how quickly they tell me that they could never imagine doing it themselves.

Prisoners may be one of the closest analogues in our society to the lepers of Jesus’ time. As Jesus’ contemporaries feared disease, we fear the social pathologies that afflict many of those behind bars. Increasingly we seem to have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation and are content simply to keep offenders away from our communities for as long as possible.

But if we are to be followers of Christ, we need to challenge that worldview. Like Jesus, we must be willing to confront our fears, to seek out the lost and the exiled, and to offer them the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. And with more than 2 million Americans behind bars, we need a lot more workers for this harvest.

The fears that many of us have about prisoners are not unreasonable. Dorothy Day famously warned the idealists who came to the Catholic Worker houses against romanticizing the poor, and her advice applies to those who want to work with the incarcerated. I have encountered some dangerous men in prison, men who have yet to fully exorcise their personal demons and face the hard truth about the pain they have caused others.

But while working with prisoners has strengthened my convictions about the depth of human sinfulness and our need for God’s grace, it has also taught me that injustice is a soil in which sin plants strong roots. For every man who comes to chapel with a Bible in hand, there is another who can hardly read at all. Many of these men suffer from learning disabilities or mental illnesses that have been inadequately treated. State and county budget cuts have left programs that help ex-offenders reintegrate into their communities woefully underfunded. Small wonder that more than two thirds of those released from prison are ultimately re-arrested.

The needs of these men are so great that it is hard not to get discouraged. One Sunday during the general intercessions a disabled man who walked with a cane suddenly cried out loudly, “I need you all to pray for me. I get out on Monday, and I’ve got nothing and nobody.” Before we left that Sunday, we sat him down in a chair and the whole congregation laid their hands on him and prayed over him.

It’s easy to see such a response as inadequate. What are our prayers compared to a place to live, three squares a day, and a job? But the men we have encountered in the jail take their prayer very seriously. They often come up to us after the service and ask us to pray for their families. Sometimes they will offer up a torrent of names, almost in desperation, as if our ragged team of volunteers had some kind of unique hotline to the Almighty.

Moments like these help me to remember the primary reason we are here. Ours is more a ministry of presence than of problem-solving. What we try to do—by word, by prayer, by touch—is to remind these men that despite everything they are still loved by God. We bring the Blessed Sacrament, the presence of Christ. But our call is also to become that sacrament, that presence for these men.

And as we are to them, so they are to us. those of us who do this work often talk among ourselves about how worshiping and praying with these men has enriched our faith. The Franciscan writer Richard Rohr once wrote that “We need the corporal works of mercy. Go to jail, we are told. Why? We thought to help others or to be a ‘good Christian,’ but those aren’t the reasons. We need to go to jail to get converted ourselves.”

Working with prisoners has given me a greater appreciation for the great themes of the Christian story—sin, exile, atonement and return—and their power to change lives. It’s helped me to understand the truth of a prayer like the Salve Regina, which speaks of our being “poor banished children of Eve,” a prayer that never touched my heart until I prayed it behind the walls of a jail.

As Christians, we go to jail not only to serve but to learn the truth about who we are. We, too, are a people who wait in hope and long for a future different from our past. We live in a place of exile, where life is not as it should be. We face the challenge of holding on to who we are called to be and of not conforming ourselves to the culture that surrounds us. We, too, need to prepare for a day when we will be going home.

This article appeared in the March 2005 (Volume 70, Number 3) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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