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Catholic Vancouver Nov. 5, 2018

Prison ministry: an unlikely community for the ‘worst kind of person’

By Agnieszka Ruck

Longtime prison ministry advocate Maureen Donegan (right) with volunteers and inmates at a Catholic Charities Justice Services event Oct. 27. The ministry serves people like Francis*, who was convicted of manslaughter and believes himself to be "worst kind of person." (Agnieszka Ruck photo)

Francis* describes the drama of his life in two acts: before and after he was thrown behind bars.

He was arrested 8 1/2 years ago and is currently in a Fraser Valley institution serving time for manslaughter. He’s not proud of Act 1.

“Before my arrest, I was very greedy. I was in search of power, fuelled by anger, driven by money,” he told 160 prison ministry volunteers and supporters, and a few inmates, during a gathering Oct. 27.

He said he once considered anything and any person as a possession to be used and discarded as he chose. “Unless you were my mother or my son, you didn’t mean a thing to me,” he said.

“I’m the guy people turned to when they wanted drugs, when they wanted people beat up, when they wanted people to disappear. I am the worst kind of person.”

Act 2

When he was thrown behind bars, something unexpected happened. He met people who didn’t treat him like the worst human being he believed he was.

Recently, after attending Mass at his institution, Francis was surprised to see a prison ministry volunteer approach him. “The only thing she said to me, and it changed me, was after Mass: ‘(Francis), why don’t you come have some coffee with us? You don’t have to say anything, just sit with us. I see you are in a lot of pain.’”

Francis, deeply moved, said the simple, kind action helped him reflect on life before his arrest.

“Jail is not my punishment. It’s knowing and understanding how I’ve hurt my son, my family, and the community. That’s my punishment. I’ve hurt a lot of people.”

There are currently three priests, three deacons, and 260 volunteers in the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s prison ministry program. They offer Mass and other sacraments and run various activities including prison visits, Bible studies, and Circles of Support and Accountability (COSA), a program geared toward helping released sex offenders find housing, jobs, and get back into society.

Past abuses

They have been instrumental in the conversions of several inmates and helped many others find healing and forgiveness in prison, an often lonely and discouraging place.

“You can never understand the pain a prisoner is suffering from,” said Vince*, incarcerated 20 years ago, also in a local institution. “Either it’s when you were younger, when you were abused, the traumas in your life, (or) your addictions to drugs or alcohol. The trauma you suffer you try to mask with different chemicals you put in your body.”

But now, having befriended prison chaplain Father Mako Watanabe, “I’ve found the ‘chemical’ I like to put in my body is working at the chapel. I’ve really enjoyed it.” 

For the last 17 years, Vince has helped Father Watanabe set up and clean up after Mass at his institution. “I’m accepted in this community. That’s how I feel every time you guys come.”

Gaining courage

While the ministry has offered hope and mercy to men and women behind bars, volunteers are also reporting marriages strengthened and perspectives changed.

When Margaret signed up as a prison ministry volunteer nearly a decade ago, she thought it would be a good opportunity to help good people who got mixed up in bad things.

She and her husband had been at Mass in 2009 when longtime prison ministry advocate Maureen Donegan made a public appeal for more volunteers. “My husband dug me in the ribs and said: ‘You would like that,’” said Margaret. “I’m not sure where the inspiration came from. It must have been from God.”

Margaret, prison ministry volunteer since 2009.

Margaret, buoyed by his support, started the paperwork to become a volunteer in local prisons. Tragedy struck soon after.

“Six weeks later, my husband was no longer with us. He had been brewing a brain tumor and we were unaware of that. There was no pain, no nothing. He just had a seizure and died.”

Margaret was devastated. She’d grown up in a family of 12 and had been married for decades; it was painfully difficult for her to live alone. So, she threw her energy into volunteering. She joined COSA, the ministry for released sex offenders.

Shortly after she and the group began regular meetings, the man they’d been reaching out to became very ill and died of cancer. The small group of volunteers supported his daughter and family through the grieving process and attended the man’s funeral.

“That was a really positive start for me in ministry: that I could be of service to people who were suffering,” said Margaret. “By being involved with others, it gave me a tremendous amount of relief and courage.”

After the death of a COSA member, she felt called to serve at Surrey Pre-trial Services Centre. There, during Bible studies, Margaret has been surprised with some inmates’ knowledge of Scripture, sometimes surpassing her own.

“What I get from it is what I most need to know myself: How to have a good Christian faith. How to have dignity. How to believe in God’s plan for my life, no matter what’s happening to me,” she said.

“Fear could prevent me from doing a lot in life. When I go to prison ministry, it has taught me not to have a plan B, just to trust in God’s plan.”

Jesus is knocking

Margaret, Vince, and Francis shared their testimonies at the Catholic Charities Justice Services (also known as prison ministry) development day, held at St. Andrew Kim Parish Oct. 27.

Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, a special guest at the gathering and a strong supporter of the archdiocese’s prison ministry efforts, thanked volunteers for their dedication.

"The love of God is not defeated, even in the face of evil actions," Archbishop Miller tells volunteers.

“To walk by faith, in your ministry, is to affirm by your actions that you believe the love of God is not defeated, even in the face of evil actions, but that it is capable of transforming it, of changing them,” he said.

He praised volunteers for affirming prisoners’ human dignity and following Jesus’ command to visit them.

“Think of how the first Christians dealt with their former persecutor, Saul, who became St. Paul. At first the community was probably terrified to welcome into their midst a former persecutor of their fellow Christians, including the murder of Stephen,” he said.

“His attitude of violence must surely have challenged the faith of the first believers in the same way that we are challenged today by those who have harmed others. But they accepted him, because they believed that God had set him apart for his service.”

That sense of being part of a community is what helps inmates like Francis, the self-proclaimed “worst kind of person,” work out his sentence and find healing.

“You know that picture of Jesus, behind the door?” he said, describing the famous painting depicting Jesus holding a lantern and standing outside a door, knocking.

“That’s what all you guys are to me,” he said. “You guys, with your example, you have opened that door slightly, and it’s up to me, now, to walk in.”

*Names changed.