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Prison ministry depends on volunteers

By James Buchok


WINNIPEG — Catholics are doing wonderful work in prison ministry, but not enough of it.

A tri-diocesan gathering in Winnipeg Nov. 20 for all who are involved in, or interested in joining prison ministry, heard that a U.S. study found only five per cent of those volunteering in prison ministry are Catholic and more than 80 per cent of those Catholics are women.

“Our Protestant and Mennonite friends are the mainstays,” said prison ministry volunteer Louis Balcaen, one of many contributors to the meeting, held to let people know what’s been happening in prison ministry and recruit more to the cause.

The archdioceses of St. Boniface and Winnipeg and the Ukrainian archeparchy formed the tri-diocesan initiative on prison ministry in late 2012. The ministry works primarily in the Manitoba Youth Centre in Winnipeg, Headingley Correctional Centre west of the city and Stony Mountain Institution north of Winnipeg.

Its task, committee leaders say, is made challenging because of the widely held perception that serving time in prison is justice in itself, or that retribution is more effective than mediation and restorative measures. Exaggerated fears and myths among the public prevent people from engaging in helping those who are in prison.

Yet, say the chaplains, volunteers, and former inmates in attendance, the work of prison ministry brings hope to those behind bars.

Deacon Colin Peterson, chaplain at Headingley, said the main thing a chaplain or volunteer can do “is bear witness to the truth.” He said inmates are constantly told, “You’re no good, you’re stupid and useless. They’re told this with blows and by neglect and by empty bowls and empty homes. A chaplain’s job is to show them God loves them and sees what’s good in them. A chaplain prays that we can see them the way God sees them.

“We’re not in the business of fixing people or changing people, “ Peterson said. “Our purpose is to bear witness to God’s love for them and to make that love tangible to them.”

Prison ministry A former inmate told the group that in prison he felt like he’d been thrown into a jungle where he didn’t know who was safe to talk to and survival is minute-by-minute and day-to-day.

“We don’t know how to help each other,” he said. “It’s so lonely the only thing you want is someone to talk to. Without the chaplain I felt like there was nobody.” He said that, in an institution, “you don’t hear anything positive from anyone.”

He said because of prison ministry he could attend mass and afterward share fellowship. He is grateful for the volunteers and everything they give up to be there.

“It made me feel like a person to have someone listen to my problems. Being out now, I really owe it to the volunteers. I’m happy to have my life back and see you guys on the outside.”

But the outside presents many challenges for ex-inmates who have only the same home life to return to, and the same friends that led to prison in the first place.

This is where some of the very good work is being done by Catholic prison ministry in Manitoba, with, for example, Future Hope, which oversees three programs — Next Step, Quixote House and Massie House — in an effort to bring a stable community oriented environment into the lives of former prisoners.

Next Step holds weekly meetings where participants can share their struggles and accomplishments in an atmosphere of trust and the readiness to affirm and be challenged. Some are still inmates or parolees, living in a halfway house, or with family.

Quixote House in downtown Winnipeg is a residence opened in 2008 by the Jesuit community where about six parolees at a time can live with two or three of the priests for a fixed period, in safety and companionship, while becoming financially stable and emotionally grounded.

It soon became clear that some residents of Quixote House needed more time for a successful re-entry into society, so when the house next door became available in 2010 it was transformed into Massie House, named after Jesuit Rev. Brian Massey who was a prison chaplain in Jamaica and Canada. Massie House has four one-bedroom, self-contained apartments, rented at reasonable rates to Quixote House alumni, all former participants in Next Step. Massie House residents serve as examples for those new to Next Step and Quixote House, who will see there are successful models to emulate.

The gathering also heard of an initiative led by the Bishop Gary Gordon of Victoria, B.C., the liaison to Correctional Ministry for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. The plan is called the Catholic Connections in Restorative Justice Network and its first national conference was held in September in Quebec. The first phase of the project is to identify the cross-Canada community of Catholics “called to be in service to those touched by crime.”

Charlotte Novak, chaplain at Stony Mountain, attended the conference, as did a number of others at the Winnipeg gathering. Novak said when Correctional Services Canada cut 49 part-time chaplains working in Canada’s federal prisons in Oct. 2012, “I felt defeated. I know how important those community chaplains were to our inmates when they leave. When they get out, where do they go? Many are institutionalized and haven’t made decisions for themselves in years.”

Novak said with the vision of a national network, “the Catholic Church is starting to fill in that gap and we’re looking at things across Canada, and here we have the commitment that our Catholic Church is stepping up and is going to help fill the void. There still is hope; the conference made me feel like coming back here and working harder. Our parishes are going to step up and help integrate those fellows into society.”

It can be done, Novak said, emphasizing that success depends on “the importance of volunteers with the support of our church.”

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