Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Go Directly to Jail: Even before the HBO Series Oz, Most People Were Rightly Fearful of Stepping Foot Inside the Big House. but Prison Ministry Isn't Just for a Brave Few, Argues J. Peter Nixon. All Catholics Are Called to Visit the Prisoner in Their Local Correctional Facility

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Go Directly to Jail: Even before the HBO Series Oz, Most People Were Rightly Fearful of Stepping Foot Inside the Big House. but Prison Ministry Isn't Just for a Brave Few, Argues J. Peter Nixon. All Catholics Are Called to Visit the Prisoner in Their Local Correctional Facility

Article excerpt

HE WAS SIX FEET TALL, WITH A BLOND CREW cut and powerful muscles that filled out his orange prison jumpsuit. He grunted an assent when we asked him to sign in but returned to his seat quickly, without engaging anyone in conversation.

During the service I saw a single tear run down his cheek, then two more in quick succession. After the closing hymn I walked over to him and laid a tentative hand on his shoulder, wanting to see if he was all right.

The next thing I knew his arms were wrapped around me and he was sobbing into my shoulder. I don't know how long we stood there holding each other. Finally we separated. I asked him if he needed to talk. He said, "No, I'm just carrying some heavy things in my heart right now." I told him I would pray for him. He left, and I watched him walk back down the hill to the barracks.

It is experiences like this that have kept me coming back to the county jail near our parish for the last five years. I'm part of a parish team that organizes a weekly Communion service for the inmates. More recently I've become involved in an ecumenical prison ministry movement known as Kairos that tries to build stable Christian communities in prisons.

Like most of us, I never thought much about prisoners until I had a personal connection with the prison system. In 1999 a friend of mine living on the East Coast was sentenced to 19 years in federal prison. Unable to visit him in person because of the distance that separated us, I began to feel a call to reach out to prisoners in my own community.

But it was a call I resisted for a long time. I was afraid, but my fears actually had little to do with my physical safety. I was more worried about losing face, of being open to men who might take advantage of that openness. I also worried that differences in race or class would make it impossible for us to find common ground. Lacking any obvious skills for this kind of work, I had to trust that God would give me what I needed. Over time I've gradually become more comfortable being inside jails and prisons and spending time with the people who live in them.

One of the things that confirms me in my decision to keep doing this work is the reaction I get when I tell people about it. It's not that they react negatively; for the most part I find people are very supportive. Rather, it's how quickly they tell me that they could never imagine doing it themselves.

Prisoners may be one of the closest analogues in our society to the lepers of Jesus' time. As Jesus' contemporaries feared disease, we fear the social pathologies that afflict many of those behind bars. Increasingly we seem to have given up on the possibility of rehabilitation and are content simply to keep offenders away from our communities for as long as possible.

But if we are to be followers of Christ, we need to challenge that worldview. Like Jesus, we must be willing to confront our fears, to seek out the lost and the exiled, and to offer them the possibility of forgiveness and reconciliation. And with more than 2 million Americans behind bars, we need a lot more workers for this harvest.

THE FEARS THAT MANY OF US HAVE ABOUT PRISONERS ARE not unreasonable. Dorothy Day famously warned the idealists who came to the Catholic Worker houses against romanticizing the poor, and her advice applies to those who want to work with the incarcerated. I have encountered some dangerous men in prison, men who have yet to fully exorcise their personal demons and face the hard truth about the pain they have caused others. …

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