By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor
KANSAS CITY — Within the 27-county Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, there are six state prisons and 24 county and city jails. The thousands of men, women and juveniles incarcerated in these facilities have need of more than just “three hots and a cot.” They need encouragement, the sense that someone cares, some dignity and hope.
The diocesan MAX prison/jail ministry, coordinated by the Human Rights office, seeks to ensure a pastoral and sacramental presence in the prisons and jails and provide continued support to those re-entering society. This is a ministry of presence, of love for God and fellow man.
Prison strips an inmate of his/her freedoms and most of their dignity. Some will serve short sentences, some life terms, some are on death row, awaiting execution. But for all of them, MAX volunteers can make a difference.
The three main pillars of the ministry are Volunteers in Corrections (VIC), Volunteers in Prayer (VIP) and Prison Pen Pals.
In 2015, VICs provided almost 59,000 hours of volunteer service in the Missouri Department of Correction’s Division of Adult Institutions, and thousands of hours of service for the Division of Probation and Parole’s programs. Father Ernie Gauthier has served in prison ministry for at least 40 years at the Jackson County Detention Center. He calls his fellow VICs “the God Squad.” Another VIC, Raiza Guevera, has served at the Jackson County Detention Center for about three and a half years. She holds weekly Bible studies for Hispanics Catholics in jail. She said she is the only woman who visits the prisoners in their cells for small, no more than six, group Bible studies. The program is the only Hispanic Catholic Ministry at the jail.
Currently, about 65 volunteers regularly visit the prisons and jails in northwest Missouri to provide sacraments and the gift of listening to the incarcerated men and women. They also volunteer at the Kansas City Release Center, where prisoners are transferred to serve their final year before release.
Weekly for the past nine years, Precious Blood Father Ron Will of St. Francis Xavier Parish in St. Joseph has visited inmates at Western Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center, a minimum security/reception facility in St. Joseph, celebrating Mass for Catholic inmates and when requested through the prison chaplain, to hear confessions. In an email to The Key he wrote that “The Missionaries of the Precious Blood try to minister to people on the margins of society, and prison ministry definitely falls into that category. So that is a motivation for me to go to the prison.”
He praised the laity at St. Francis Xavier and other local parishes who have Volunteers in Corrections visiting this prison as part of several different ministries: VICs lead various Bible Study series on Tuesday evenings. Individuals go in on different evenings to visit prisoners in their group units, to pray with them and offer Holy Communion to any Catholics among them. And once or twice a year, a team participates in a weekend retreat called REC (Residents Encounter Christ). There is a REC retreat the weekend of Oct. 21-23, he said.
Deacon Doug Myler, of St. John LaLande Parish in Blue Springs, has been a VIC for the last 3 – 4 years at Crossroads Correctional Center. “I just began helping at the Kansas City Release Center in September,” Deacon Myler said. “I, or the other VICs at CRCC lead a Communion Service when Father Phil Luebbert is unable to attend. When he is there, the men have Mass and opportunity to receive the Sacrament of Confession. The other VICs are Jeannine Arens, Dee Baker, and Pat Wiles.
“What a VIC brings to the men is a ministry of presence. For those who have infrequent visitors, contact with others outside the facility is very limited.,” Deacon Myler said. “While we are unable to bring materials into them, Bibles, prayer books, devotionals, etc. we do bring ourselves, our presence. Praying, receiving the sacraments together, and talking with one another certainly lifts me up. I hope that it does the men, too.”
Jeannine and Ken Arens have been parishioners of St. John LaLande since 2002. They first became interested in prison ministry in 2000 after reading an article about it in The Catholic Key, she said. The couple said ‘yes’ to “the call for ministry in this Corporal Work of Mercy” at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron as the need was greatest there, at that time.
CRCC is a level 5, maximum security prison and they have known the same men all these years. Many are lifers, with or without the possibility of parole.
One of the biggest obstacles to attracting volunteers to prison ministry, Jeannine said, is the stigma and misinformation attached to prisoners in general and prison life. “Prison life is not Club Med, nor are the inmates like what we see in crime shows and movies.”
People need to be educated and informed of the great need for volunteers in prisons and jails, she said. “Unfortunately, opportunities for ministering have become limited in recent years, but show how important it is.”
Jeannine is an “advocate for reaching souls in the darkest places” she’s ever seen. “Most of the men we see are seeking a Catholic service but some come seeking to stay sane and sometimes alive! We bring the sacraments, as well as desperately needed hope and encouragement,” she said. “We are witnesses to the Faith and our love for our fellow human beings in a tough situation.”
She recognizes that many would say the inmates have brought it upon themselves due to poor judgment or a stupid decision. “I see it as there but for the Grace of God go I.” She said she has seen and heard the needs of the inmates and their families. “They are just like us for the most part.”
She disputed the impression that the participants in this ministry think that all prisoners should be released, not serve any time in prison.
Nothing could be further from the truth, she said. “Prison ministry, in all its ways and shapes, is for saving souls and meeting the spiritual needs of the inmates who in many cases have no one else. We do what we can to reach that goal and our efforts are repaid a hundred fold!”
The Volunteers in Prayer Ministry (VIP) is well suited to those who cannot get to a prison or jail or would be uncomfortable in that environment.
Nearly 100 Prayer Warriors pray weekly or monthly for the intentions of inmates recorded by VICs. Some of those intentions have included: ‘Continued prayers for my youngest daughter, that God soften and heal her heart, as I have been in prison for 10 years since she was 2 years old and she’s having a rough time of it …Reconciliation with the Lord between those we’ve harmed and those who harm us … For my wife and children … For all shut ins. Jesus I ask you to put your arms around them and touch their lives.’
At St. John LaLande, the VIPs pray weekly for intentions of offenders at CRCC, Chillicothe Correctional Center, Western Reception Diagnostic Correctional Center in St. Joseph, KCRC and the Caldwell County Correctional Center, commonly called the Kingston Jail. Many of Kingston’s 144 inmates, men, women and juveniles, are Hispanic, Jeannine said, who long for the sacraments and the Rosary.
Pen Pals correspond with offenders in prison. In the words of one pen pal, “Being incarcerated can have many drawbacks; a major one is correspondence or interaction with the outside world. … Something as simple as a letter can brighten someone’s day or bring hope and encouragement. … Writing letters, sharing stories, interests and many other things. … Writing can be a positive way to express or share things with someone. Writing helps break up the monotony of everyday life in here.”
A Pen Pal who corresponds with an offender who has been imprisoned since age 18, wrote, “’Things could always be worse.’ That’s the ‘favorite saying’ of my pen-pal, a saying that is both heartbreaking and encouraging at the same time.
“He is only in his mid-20s, but he has already experienced deep loss and suffering and that continues every day. And how is anyone, especially a perfect stranger, supposed to bear this suffering along with someone imprisoned — not only bear it but witness to hope?
“That is what I think the Pen Pal ministry is for: to continually serve as a reminder to those we correspond with that they aren’t alone, they aren’t forgotten, and even in the midst of suffering there is cause for hope, not in so many words, necessarily, but by the simple presence and reality of our letters, our time, our attention.”
Volunteers serve as mentors to released offenders through the Workforce Development Program at Catholic Charities which works to help them find counseling, housing and employment as they readjust to society.
Volunteers help drive family members to visit their mom/son/husband/daughter/etc. in prison. One such group is Family United Transportation Service which serves Missouri and Kansas prisons.
People from all walks of life can be good volunteers. Level-headed people who are willing to share their faith, training and experience with inmates are needed.
To learn more about MAX, the diocesan prison ministry, visit www.humanrightskcsj.org/max-prison–jail.