I remember well my first day at a maximum-security facility. I had volunteered to help with a summer school program there, and I knew God was waiting for me. Still, I found it unnerving to hear the sound of gates clanging shut behind me and to walk past the tough-looking inmates.
Once I got to know the men who attended my classes, though, I discovered that they had adopted the tough façade for their own safety in prison. Underneath, they were kind, appreciative, gifted, and eager to learn. I encountered God in them, especially as I listened to their wrenching life stories. I also saw that my mere act of listening brought them hope and made God’s presence more real to them.
That summer changed my life. Eventually, it led me into full-time ministry with prisoners, ex-prisoners, and their families. And in all these situations, I discovered the same basic need for what I call a ministry of presence—a heart-to-heart attentiveness that brings the hope of Christ to people who live behind bars of loneliness and isolation.
Presence to Prisoners. When God led me to become a prison chaplain for four institutions, I learned how much prisoners need hope. I was in the prisons all day, meeting inmates, some with life sentences, and spending time with people in the restricted-housing units.
Sometimes, I had to tell inmates that a loved one was dying or deceased; I grieved with them that they could not travel to say that last good-bye or be with family. I empathized with those who worried about their children, marriages, and other close relationships. They felt so limited in what they could do; guilt often overpowered them and beckoned them to despair.
A ministry of presence was vital for hope—not just my presence but also that of the volunteers who helped with religious services, Bible studies, and other groups and outreaches. Together with the prisoners who participated in these programs, we created a close community of brothers and sisters caring for one another.
The Sufferings of Families. In this new ministry I had embraced, I learned that families of prisoners need a ministry of presence, too. Just recently, after hearing me give a talk, a woman slipped quietly beside me and whispered, “My granddaughter is in prison.” My heart wept for the girl, as I heard the story of how her life came apart when she began using drugs. But I wept, too, for this grieving grandmother.
“I’m afraid to talk about this with my friends,” she told me. I could understand her fears. I have often seen prisoners’ family members ostracized and judged by the very friends and neighbors whose support they need so badly. I have met children of prisoners who were taunted by classmates when their secret was revealed.
Sometimes, the rejection comes from family members. I think of Susan (all names have been changed), who told me that her husband reluctantly drives her to visit their grandson in prison, but waits in the car while she goes inside. She feels alone, unsupported, overwhelmed.
There are financial hardships as well. As I saw during my first eight years in prison ministry, when I was visiting prisoners’ families, many were dealing with a lower household income. Then, too, there was the high cost of collect phone calls from incarcerated loved ones and the expense of travel to often distant prisons.
I witnessed the even more costly emotional losses, especially for the children. I’ll never forget the sight of little Tommy, leaving his father after a prison visit. “I want my daddy,” he cried, tears trickling down his face as his mother pulled him along.
So many suffer when a loved one is behind bars. So many need a word of hope.
The Difference Hope Makes. My eyes were opened to the power of Christian hope and presence one November, when I brought donated groceries and Thanksgiving turkeys to two families of prisoners. Both lived in the same gloomy housing project.
My first visit was to Sarah, a haggard-looking mother who seemed much older than her years. Three crying children, roaches in abundance, stove burners lit for heat, and holes in walls with peeling paint—everything told of the despair to which poverty can lead. We talked, and I listened with my heart. My gifts of presence and food gave Sarah a morsel of hope: She was not alone.
By contrast, hope was already at work in the second home I visited that day. The prisoner’s wife, Amy, showed me around her apartment and pointed out how she covered the depressing walls with plants and pictures of her two children. They were in school, and Amy was continuing her own education to help her family have a better life. Again, I listened with my heart, affirming this young mother’s dreams and rejoicing to see how her growing hope was transforming even her living conditions.
Let’s Reach Out! What can we followers of Jesus do to help those who live behind visible or invisible bars of despair? First of all, it is crucial that we pray for them! And then, each in our own way, we can reach out. Some of us can volunteer in prisons. Others can minister through pen pal programs for prisoners; this is another way of listening and encouraging. Or we can offer a ministry of presence to families and ex-prisoners by supporting programs that help meet their various needs.
Local churches can join together to create support groups where prisoners’ families can feel accepted and understood. Schools can sponsor toy drives for Christmas or “Christmas in July” benefits for families. Even small kindnesses are important. Driving and accompanying someone to visit a family member in prison is an opportunity for contemplative listening. Contributing toward one month’s phone bill, even anonymously, can relieve some stress.
Is Jesus calling you to be his eyes, his ears, his hands, his heart to someone behind bars? Why not pray about it, and see where the Spirit leads!
Dolores Chepiga, a sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia, ministers with the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Baltimore as Coordinator of Prison Outreach.