Those incarcerated need a ministry of presence

Members of the diocesan prison ministry team who have recorded and worked with inmates at the women’s prison in Chillicothe and the men’s minimum/medium security prison in Cameron for the Story Link program include Father Jack Zupez, S.J., Doug Schmitz, Teresa Fantasma, Brenda Stevenson, Jack Walling and Steve Seuferling. Fr. Zupez is in residence at Sacred Heart parish, in Hamilton, but serves full-time in prison ministry; Teresa Fantasma is a parishioner of Church of the Good Shepherd, in Smithville; and the rest are St. Munchin parishioners in Cameron. (Marty Denzer/Key photo)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — There are nearly 30 jails and prisons in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, including six state correctional facilities with minimum, medium and maximum security levels. The correctional institutions in Northwest Missouri — Kansas City Reentry Center, Kansas City; Chillicothe Correction Center (women) Chillicothe; Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center, St. Joseph; Maryville Treatment Center; Western Missouri Correctional Center, Cameron (medium security, men), and adjacent to Western Missouri Correctional Center – Crossroads Correctional Center (maximum security, men) altogether house thousands of inmates.

MAX, the prison and jail ministry of the Office of Human Rights of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, provides pastoral care, education, public policy advocacy and prayer support in service of the incarcerated and their families.

Volunteers for the MAX ministry throughout the diocese minister to inmates and provide free Catholic Bibles and prayer books in English and in Spanish, rosaries to those requesting them, pray weekly for inmates and their families and offer friendship through a pen pal program. More than 60 of the volunteers are certified Volunteers in Corrections (VIC), who offer one-on-one in-prison spiritual counseling, sacramental services, Bible studies, devotions, as well as evening prayers. They are lay people, deacons and priests.

Story Link, a program started in 1998 at the Women’s Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Corrections Center in Vandalia, a small central Missouri town, now serving 13 state prisons in the central and southern parts of the state, is gaining a foothold at Western Missouri Correctional Center in Cameron and Chillicothe Correction Center in Chillicothe. Jesuit Father Jack Zupez, who was assigned to the St. Louis area for a year before coming to this diocese, learned about Story Link through his work with prison ministry. He contacted Dana Abendschein, who, with his wife Jane, initiated the Story Link program, and served as a volunteer for the program. Fr. Zupez has lived in Hamilton, not far from the Western Missouri Correctional Center, since his assignment to northwest Missouri and has volunteered there in prison ministry for four and a half years, he said. The 82-year-old priest has also volunteered at the Kansas City Reentry Center.

For some time, the Missouri Department of Corrections has been recommending the Story Link program to all the state’s prisons, and the women’s prison in Chillicothe and now the men’s minimum/medium security prison at Cameron both have the program.

Here’s how Story Link works. Inmates who have been free from any rule violations for 90 days or more can sign up for the program. Inmates are called one at a time to a room where a trained and vetted volunteer waits with a recording device and a stack of books appropriate for ages 2-18. The inmate selects a book and writes a message in its front. He or she can then read out loud for 5 minutes, while the volunteer records the reading. The inmate can write another message at the end of the book and address an envelope to the child. The recording is made into a CD and both the CD and the book are mailed to the child. There is no cost to the inmate or the family for this service.

Fr. Zupez said that in September, 22 of the female inmates called showed up to read aloud to their children. There were 23 in October, he added.

Diocesan Prison Ministry volunteer Teresa Fantasma said, “I have done the Story Link only once and that was the first time we launched the program at the Western Missouri Correctional Center facility in Cameron in September. I wasn’t able to do it in October because I did a REC (Residents Encounter Christ) retreat at the St. Joe prison [Western Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center] that same weekend. I’m looking very forward to doing it again.”

“The men were very appreciative of the opportunity to participate and thanked us for doing it. This program has been around a long time at Chillicothe [the women’s prison] with great success, and I feel that we will have more and more sign up for this one at Cameron as we get on a regular routine and others hear about it.  I specifically had a Grandpa that did it for his granddaughter and it was precious that he did that, and I’m sure she loved it.”

Fr. Zupez recalled hearing inmate moms at Chillicothe telling their child(ren) in their “goodbye” message, “Love you to the moon and back!” Improved, closer familial relationships have resulted from the Story Link program, as well as improved literacy for both parents and children and better parenting skills.

Fr. Zupez said the program is completely volunteer and donation dependent, especially for postage. He is trying to raise postage funds through the local ministerial alliance.

There are other prison and jail ministries available. MAX offers a prisoner pen pal program, a prisoner’s rosary program; Volunteers in Prayer; Volunteers in Corrections, and the Residents Encounter Christ, the 3-day retreat for prisoners program.

Raiza Guevara, a hospice nurse and the new Program Coordinator for VIA, the diocesan Human Rights Office’s Immigration and Refugee Ministry, is a long-time volunteer at the Jackson County Jail in Kansas City. She shared both some artwork and a letter she received. Using one of those pencils seen in voting booths, about 2 to 3 inches long, and no eraser, the artist drew Our Lady of Guadalupe and praying hands with a rosary on note paper. His work caught the attention of prison staff and now he is teaching other inmates to draw.

The letter, written in Spanish, is one of conversion. Raiza, who emigrated from Venezuela to the U.S. in 1995, translated it. She said she heard a call from God about 14 years ago “to use her gifts to help those needing help,” and that is what she does. “I love being an advocate!” she said.

“Hello. I am a young man, 25 years old trying to change my life for our Lord Jesus Christ but it is not easy to do for someone like me, since most of my life I have lived on the streets selling drugs. Many people respected me for how aggressive I was. I did not have much time to think about God because the street and women were my life. I was so lost in my fantasy world that I did not let anyone talk to me about the word of God, but when I fell too deep, I met a friend who began to talk to me about God and he gave me a Bible. He told me ‘get close to God’ but I told him that this wasn’t possible, especially in the place we were because if the other prisoners saw us reading the Bible, they would think we were afraid and that is not good in a place like that because later they would be all over us all the time. To avoid problems, it was better to leave it until later. So we spent several weeks like that until one day I fought with another prisoner and they put me in isolation for 23 hours a day with no visiting rights, and since I had nothing to do I began reading the old Bible my friend had given me, as if it was just another book, but little by little, I realized that it was not just another book. It was different. This book talked about peace and love, about God’s love for his people and those who love Him, and without realizing it, my desire to hurt people and fight disappeared in my heart. How I expressed myself changed, too, and I stopped saying bad words. Now I realize that God exists and is real, that He lives in my heart. Now I trust that someday I will leave this place, find my family and talk to them about the most amazing being: God.”

The MAX ministry is one of loving others as Jesus loved — to the moon and back — and its volunteers can see in letters, artwork, and general behavior during ministerial visits that it’s having an effect.

To learn more about MAX or the other Human Rights Office ministries, visit kcsjcatholic.org and click on Human Rights or contact Laurie Jo Holmes (816) 714-2364.

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Friday
December 14, 2018
Newspaper of the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph