Bringing Christ to the incarcerated

Volunteers hold up a banner proclaiming Redemption at the conclusion of the 16th Residents Encounter Christ Retreat last month at Western Regional Diagnostic and Correctional Center in St. Joseph. (Laurie Jo Holmes/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — Matthew 25:31-39 tells the story of when Christ returns to judge all nations. To the righteous he says, “’For I was … in prison and you visited me. … Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”

For years, clergy and laity have worked to bring Christ to the nearly 30 jails and prisons across the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. Father Ernie Gauthier has been part of the ministry since he was a young deacon in 1961. Although retired since 2002, the priest returns to the Jackson County jail monthly to visit inmates, celebrate a Mass or service, and bring hope and the Gospel message to them.

The criminal justice system has changed over the years. Buildings and campuses opened and closed. Jails and prisons are crowded. It was and is depressing. Inmates need hope.

Prison ministry is a ministry of presence needed by the juveniles, men and women in the prisons and jails. Volunteers provide inmates with free Bibles and prayer books in English and Spanish. Volunteers in Corrections offers one-on-one in-prison spiritual counseling, sacramental services, Bible studies, devotions and evening prayers. All offer an inmate hope.

Since 2015, MAX, the prison ministry of the Diocesan Human Rights office, coordinated by Laurie Jo Holmes, has grown and expanded. Through its programs, volunteers keep inmates in prayer, visit them, provide sacraments and conversation, and write them letters so they know someone cares about them.

“MAX” comes from St. Maximilian Kolbe, the Polish priest who established the Mission of the Immaculata in 1917. Interned at Auschwitz in 1941, Father Kolbe offered himself in place of a young husband chosen by the Nazis to die in an escape reprisal. He was canonized in 1982.

Deacon Rick Boyle, a Platte City Police Chaplain, on-call Platte County jail chaplain and on-call victim’s advocate at the Kansas City Release Center, said there are substantial differences between prison and jail ministries. He explained that most people in custody in jail have not been adjudicated and are considered innocent until convicted in a court. Most of those in jail are there for a very short time.

“Most inmates aren’t bad people,” he said, “God doesn’t make bad people. Most haven’t had a good family role model, have been abused or led astray by Satan’s false, empty promises. When someone shows them a little attention, love and care, they soak it up like a sponge. All they want to know is that they’re important and someone cares. I’m moved when I see their excitement and desire to learn and talk about Jesus and our faith.”

Currently about 80 Volunteers in Corrections (VICs) — 13 priests, 5 deacons and more than 60 lay people — regularly visit jails and prisons. More than 100 Volunteers in Prayer (VIPs) intentionally pray weekly for inmates’ intentions. The Prison Pen Pal program is strong, with monthly letters exchanged, under strict guidelines, telling inmates about the outside world, and showing them someone cares.

The Residents Encounter Christ (REC) ministry holds 3-day retreats for inmates several times a year at correctional centers in the Diocese.
Ravi Jayakodi has volunteered at the Jackson County Detention Center (JCDC) for 11 years, assisting at Sunday afternoon services, visiting inmates when requested, and distributing Christmas gift bags.

Jayakodi said 75 percent of the inmates are still in their 20s. “Even though at one time they failed,” he said, “they too have their dreams and ambitions.”

Seeing men’s faces light up with the hope he and the other VICs bring moves him. “Many times, after services, they come and thank us.”

His introduction to the ministry was a flyer he saw at St. Patrick’s Church, portraying a jailed Jesus, wearing a crown of thorns. “Going into the jail, is not easy,” Jayakodi said. “It needs our persistent efforts, training, etc. But we might be the only visitor for many forgotten people.”

Deacon Kevin Cummings has volunteered at JCDC for four years. At first apprehensive, he resisted the call, but after much prayer, he realized that’s where he was most needed. He took prep courses, swallowed his apprehension and started going monthly. He now holds Sunday Eucharistic services or, if a priest is present, assists at Mass. Many different faiths attend. He enjoys explaining Catholic beliefs and teachings to non-Catholics.

For inmates, Deacon Cummings said, it’s an hour of freedom, an hour in which to be blessed, receive the Eucharist, and not feel in jail. “I pray daily for all ‘my’ prisoners, they need hope.”

He finds prison ministry fantastic. “I put myself in their place when I’m there. What do they need? I try to give them what they need, mostly hope.”

Recently, Jim Josten became part of MAX at JCDC. He said, “… I’m becoming aware of how everyone … is a child of God. … the residents … are, for the most part, people who have made some bad choices. I feel they … appreciate someone taking time to treat them with respect … they have the same need for love and attention. It is our hope and challenge to make just a little difference in how they view life and give them motivation to look deep … search for the change they need to turn a corner. This ministry has helped me realize how blessed I am to have family … that guided me and not take that for granted.“

Formerly, Deacon Doug Myler provided transportation to families so they could visit loved ones. Family visits are important during incarceration, he said, helping prevent recidivism. Later, after attending a Mass at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, he applied to be a VIC and was approved. He also assists monthly at the Kansas City Reentry Center in the West Bottoms.  Crossroads’ Catholic inmates come together on Wednesday evenings “for a religious service, faith sharing, and growing in their faith. … We are also a ministry of presence. I enjoy … them because of their honesty, candor, the commonality we share as human beings made in the image and likeness of God. I believe we enjoy one another’s presence. … Our similarities far exceed our differences.

“I baptized a man a few years ago … He wanted to be baptized so much, he could hardly wait… After his baptism, he had that look of completeness … I believe it was a very important time in his life. Each time I bring Holy Communion … an inmate always thanks me …  voice full of gratitude, thanksgiving, and appreciation.

“When I became Catholic,” Deacon Myler said, “I didn’t know how I was going to fulfill the corporal work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned. But God provided a way. I was a pen-pal for several years to an inmate in the Texas Correctional System. I began to understand that he had as much worth and dignity as anyone … When you believe nobody cares about you, you begin to not care about anyone but yourself. I believe a VIC brings God’s love to the least among us, the prisoner.”

Elaine Ingle volunteers at Western Regional Diagnostic and Correctional Center (WRDCC) in St. Joseph. She met the MAX Ministry through the Residents Encounter Christ retreat program, and it changed her life. At her first retreat, a 50-year old man at her table began to cry, saying, ‘This is the first time in my life anyone has told me I’m loved!’ “All I could think was how beautiful God’s love is, he loves every single person he creates. I am called to do the same.”

People are innately good, she said, but choices made through free will can harm relationships with God and others. Prison inmates have made poor choices, but are still part of God’s family.

Since participating in that first retreat, Ingle has helped lead Bible studies at WRDCC, served on REC ministry teams at prisons and at the monthly REC reunions. She also volunteers as a part-time receptionist at the Catholic Charities’ St. Joseph office.

“This is God’s ministry, … teaching me to follow Christ’s example of loving my neighbor. … The greatest gift I can give inmates is to listen to their stories; we all have a story to share. We become aware of how much God loves us, desires to be with us as we show love and compassion to those in greatest need. … I thank Jesus every day that he gave me the opportunity to be his hands and feet in prison ministry.”

For the past year, Deacon Boyle has conducted a regular communion service at KCRC. “Afterwards, we discuss different Catholic topics and I offer prayers and blessings for the inmates.” A few non-Catholics attend so the group might spend some time discussing Catholic social teaching and Theology. In his Platte Country Jail ministries, he serves all faiths through counseling, spiritual and emotional support.
He also said that most prison inmates, regardless of time served, are sent to KCRC within 18 months of release. “These inmates can see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.”

Why do men and women serve this ministry? Because they believe Jesus asked them to. Deacon Boyle quoted St. Teresa of Calcutta saying, ‘I serve because I love Jesus,’ adding, “He’s alone in prison, I shall visit and comfort him. I serve because I love Jesus.” Perhaps Christ looks out of an inmate’s eyes.

For more information, visit website, and click on the MAX icon, or contact Laurie Jo Holmes, or (816) 756-1850 ext. 532.




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October 30, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph