We all know about the need to care for the poor, the necessity of involvement in the pro-life movement, the importance of instructing youth…But prisoners?
I would venture to say that ministering to the incarcerated is probably one of the last things that comes to mind when we think of ministries in general. In my experience, most people (myself included) tend to think of them as people who’ve messed up big time and are now paying for it — which is true, but that doesn’t make them any less in need of our help, prayers, and support.
My Brief, Difficult Experience
My own experience in prison ministry occurred when I was probably least equipped to do it.
I spent the summer between my junior and senior year of college living on my own, three states away from home, in a suburb of Los Angeles in order to participate in a screenwriting program. It was my first experience living totally alone, and it was very lonely.
True to my character as a Franciscan University student, I decided I might as well try to branch out and join a new ministry. The parish I was attending had information about doing prison ministry at a juvenile detention facility, and I decided to give it a try.
I Had No Idea What I Was In For
The information in the bulletin had been sparse — just a little blurb about the time, day, and who to call if interested.
What I knew about prison ministry before that was even more sparse. I’d heard a deacon talking about it in the past, but the only information I had gleaned from him was that it consisted of volunteers visiting the imprisoned and telling them about God.
The woman I spoke to about joining the ministry told me where and when to meet her the following Sunday, and that I should wear very modest and non-provacative clothing as we would be ministering to teenage boys.
It Began with Mass…
..which is great. Ministry probably always should begin with Mass, as the greatest prayer we can offer. But the awkward thing, the strangeness that struck me as I attended Mass up in a balcony of a juvenile detention facility chapel with a bunch of teenage inmates down below, was that there seemed to be a world of difference separating us.
I think it was because the priest was an elderly, probably well-intentioned man who was trying in all seriousness to “speak their language.” The inmates were mostly racial minorities and probably from quite a different walk of life than either that priest or me (a typical middle-class and sheltered white girl).
The disparity between this priest’s appearance and the slang he was trying to use to communicate with these boys made me a little uncomfortable, almost like it was emphasizing to me just how different I was from these boys.
A Fish Out of Water
After Mass, we volunteers were supposed to just kind of sit in the lunch table area with these boys and chat. I’m very much an introvert, and so I admit that I found this to be rather excruciating. I had no idea how to connect with these young men, let alone help them to find God.
When I think about it now and try to truly put myself in the place of these poor kids, I can come to a much stronger appreciation for what this ministry does.
To be imprisoned, especially at a young age like these boys, must be a truly terrible experience. Obviously, just punishment for crimes is necessary for society, but that doesn’t make it easy to bear for those who have committed those crimes.
But For Some People, It Was Beautiful
As much as I was struggling, the other volunteers sitting near me were chatting away, asking the boys about their lives, about their families and their interests and their future plans. And these boys were coming alive in the conversation.
These imprisoned people are still children of God. They have hopes, dreams, longings, regrets. And they must yearn for people to talk about these things with.
I didn’t know how I was supposed to talk to them. But all I really should have done was let them talk about themselves, and show them God’s love through a compassionate set of ears.
You Can’t Do This Alone
I mean this in two ways. Like any ministry, you must rely on God’s grace to help you perform the good work as fruitfully as possible.
But the other aspect I only discovered with personal reflection on why this was such a hard experience for me: I attempted this ministry at perhaps the loneliest point in my life, and that’s just not a good idea.
I have a friend who is a social worker at an adult prison, and listening to her describe her daily experiences with these unfortunate people has confirmed what I suspected. One needs a support network for this kind of ministry.
At very least, doing this ministry is going to require you to become somewhat close with other volunteers there so that you’re able to decompress and debrief afterwards with someone who understands what you just experienced.
But probably most ideally, you embark on the ministry together with your boyfriend or girlfriend, someone you trust and love; someone you can speak your mind with and even cry with when needed.
Because encountering Christ in the lonely and troubled young man in prison is rather intense. But that doesn’t mean we should hide or run away from the task. Even though an inmate might not be the first person we think of as Christ in disguise, He is truly present in the members of those prisons, waiting for us to visit Him.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” Mt. 25:35-36