Finding Brothers at the Correctional Center

Visit Imprisoned Mercy Franciscan Sisters

Works of Mercy: Visiting the Imprisoned

Sr. Maria Teresa gave me a training session on the drive down to the prison a couple weeks ago. I had never ministered to prison inmates before and wanted her to share everything she could.

She started by telling me the story of the first time she visited a prison. One of the inmates tried to intimidate her by boasting of his crimes against women, but she saw through his rough exterior and found herself calmly saying words to him she wasn’t even sure she herself believed:

“The only difference between you and me is that your sins imprison you exteriorly, and mine imprison me interiorly.”

Sr. Maria Teresa would go on to become his godmother later in the year, when he was baptized into the Catholic Church. She also came to believe what she had said, and has continued visiting inmates on and off for what is now 16 years.

Her story moved me deeply, but I still found myself approaching the ministry with certain expectations. I envisioned a very institutional setting—a massive, impersonal room with stark or no religious symbols—and unfriendly inmates with blank faces and orange jumpsuits. If they were really the same as me, at least on the inside, I thought I was going to have to look past an awful lot to see that.

The two of us got our security badges, walked through a metal detector and two automatically locked doors (“You’ll never forget the sound of it shutting behind you,” Sr. Maria Teresa told me) before we made it inside the prison campus. We walked on a path across an open, grassy space where men in different-colored uniforms were standing and talking in groups. Five or six greeted us as we walked into the “multi-purpose” building, where all religious services are held. I felt the Lord was telling me to be myself, and, as I smiled, they smiled back.

We walked into the “chapel”, full of shabby chairs set up for Mass, a wall of bookshelves filled with well-used hymnals, missals and worn paperback Bibles, a makeshift altar and a small, cheap keyboard.

It wasn’t what I thought. In its homeliness and poverty, there was something attractive about it, something dear. The same was true of the men themselves. I immediately felt at home.

The first man I met—I’ll call him Brad—tore down every mental image I had of a prisoner. It was hard to define his age; his beard was salt-and-peppery, his face gentle and smooth. He had kind eyes through which I saw what I thought must be a pure soul. Brad told me how good it was to meet someone from “the Outside.”

We got to talking, and he started describing the “house” he lives in, widely known as the worst on the prison campus for behavior, conditions, and who knows what else. When he first arrived, he noticed the response many men have when you ask them how they’re doing—“Just another day in paradise”—and he started using it himself, with bitter sarcasm.

But then one day, the Lord asked him if he knew what “paradise” was. He replied, “Eden.” “And what happened in Eden?” the Lord probed. Adam and Eve walked with You, Brad thought. “And I’m walking with you,” he heard. From then on, although he kept using the same phrase when someone asked how he was, he meant it sincerely.

Brad clearly found so much joy and peace in his conversations with the Lord. He knew Him; that was easy to see. None of the other inmates had quite as much peace as he did, but each, in his own way, was on the journey.

It was a great grace to talk and joke with them as ordinary men—without the uniforms, I wouldn’t have known the difference. Perhaps, knowing my own need for God helped remove any barriers between us.

Without His protection over my life, how easily could circumstances have led me to be in the same place?

We ended the visit with Mass. The inmates led the music, read the readings, and served at the altar. The prayers we pray every day took on a new meaning for me: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned …” Together we filed up to the front to receive communion—Jesus’ body, broken and sacrificed for all. In God’s eyes, we are all equal: His beloved children.

I found brothers at the correctional center that day. We are the same on the inside—sinners who know the Lord’s mercy.

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1 comment:

  1. You're doing extremely compassionate work. I'm sure I would have been grateful for an angel like you if I was stuck in jail or in prison, but thankfully, I got an awesome bail bond and today I'm enjoying my freedom (not too much anymore though). Greetings from Inglewood, and keep up the good work.


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