Would you go to jail for Jesus? That’s the question the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary is asking people of faith—and a growing number of those who hear that request are choosing to walk into provincial and federal prisons on a regular basis.
As volunteers with the Diocese’s prison ministry, most go to pray with people who can’t leave when the allotted time is up. Retired seniors and working professionals, they know their ministry raises the eyebrows—and sometimes the blood pressure— of family and friends. Why would you do that? Aren’t you afraid? It seems risky to me. Their collective response?
Because Jesus asked me, I am not afraid, I am grateful.
“It’s a humbling experience,” says Elly, 78, of her regular visits to the Lethbridge Correctional Centre. There, she prays the rosary once a week, returning once a month for mass. Led by the Holy Spirit, she’s now thinking that’s not enough. “We don’t have enough time to just talk with the people.” Elly arrived at that realization while attending the annual prison ministry volunteer appreciation luncheon which welcomed current and potential prison ministry volunteers who have been attending an introductory workshop.
Organized by the Social Justice office, the introduction to prison ministry workshop included a discussion of prison ministry in the context of the Catholic faith. Participants were invited to a special prison ministry volunteer appreciation luncheon on Saturday, August 18. There, David Milgaard was one of the speakers.
Milgaard, who was jailed at 17, spent 23 years in federal penitentiaries for a crime he did not commit. At the luncheon, he likened volunteer visitors to the opportunity to breathe fresh air. Calling prison “a horrible place,” he credits the quiet witness of volunteer visitors with bringing Christ into his life. He also admits that happened over time. What he most appreciated about the people who visited him was news from the outside; tidbits of normalcy delivered to a life behind bars.
Jack, another former inmate, delivered a tainted version of that same message. Imprisoned in federal institutions in Bowden and Drumheller, Jack was matched with a visitor who simply didn’t show up. He was grateful, however, for the post-prison support with housing and employment that he received from Peter Worsley, a reintegration-chaplain with Bridge Ministries, a Mennonite Central Committee program funded in part by the Diocese. Worsley introduced Jack at the workshop.
Jack and Milgaard say life in prison was made tougher by the constant pressure of gangs. They also grappled with the ongoing temptation, fueled by a human instinct to survive, to park their morals at the prison gates.
The ministry-prep workshop, which will be held again in the Spring, is one of the ways the Diocese helps volunteers prepare to take on Christ’s work in the community, says Outreach Ministries coordinator Marilou LeGeyt.
That support is important to volunteers like Elly, who’s relatively new to this ministry. She says the volunteer appreciation luncheon, which included several deacons involved with prison ministry, strengthened her commitment. “It’s hard to explain. But every time I come home from the prison, I feel somehow that I’ve done what Jesus asks me to do.”
Written by: Joy Gregory
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers