Parish provides spiritual support and more to inmates
For a group of men in a California prison, being incarcerated does not have to mean “out of sight, out of mind.” That’s thanks to the social justice ministries at the Cathedral of the Annunciation Parish in Stockton.
Parishioners are very conscious of the men housed at the nearby Deuel Vocational Institution (DVI) who participate in faith-sharing and other faith-based activities that have included small-group processes from RENEW International.
DVI serves the corrections system in a section of central California as a reception center where people who have been sentenced are evaluated for placement in other facilities, but from 300 to 400 inmates serve their time at Deuel.
Irene Killian de Ojeda, who directs the social justice ministries at the cathedral parish, has been active at DVI for almost ten years and meets weekly with a group of ten to twelve men who, she said, have taken very well to faith sharing in a small group.
Among the RENEW resources the men have used have been LEVÁNTATE. Unámonos en Cristo; La justicia brota de la fe, which focuses on social justice; and Reflexiones en Cuaresma, a Lenten series.
“We also conduct Bible study sessions,’’ Irene said. I do a series of talks about the social teachings of the Church, so they know about social justice. I’m also doing an eight-week series using the study guide on Pope Francis’ message The Joy of the Gospel.”
José, a prison inmate, made this drawing, which appeared on the cover of The Paraclete,
a publication of the Restorative Justice Ministry of the Cathedral of the Annunciation parish
in Stockton, California. The Paraclete reported on inmates who participated in
ARISE Together in Christ/LEVÁNTATE Unánamos en Cristo.
Connecting the prison to the parish
Irene said members of the parish have visited the prison and gained new insights into inmates and prison through discussions with the men.
Although the men have these experiences in a prison, they are also having them as part of a parish, Irene said.
“I regularly bring information back to the parish community,’’ Irene said. “They have gotten so that this group is thought of as a mission of the Cathedral, a mini-parish community of ours. The men are considered parishioners.” In fact, the Cathedral parish sponsors the group and buys the faith-sharing books for the men.
The relationship between the DVI group and the cathedral parish was graphically displayed while the parish was engaged in the ARISE process. Irene said: “The groups at the parish had made banners. My guys wanted to do a banner, too, and they did a wonderful one—‘LEVÁNTATE. En las huellas de Cristo’ (In the Footsteps of Christ). I asked the men if I could share that with the parishioners because they pray for the men and my group prays for them. They said yes, so on one of the weekends that banner flew from the ambo, and it was really great!”
Irene said the men understand that they should not bring up any aspect of prison life that is not conducive or relevant to group discussions. However, the men also know that the group is a safe place to talk about things they would not reveal in the general prison population:
“So the men can talk about what is really bothering them, about bad news from home—someone is ill or someone has died—and their feelings about it. They’re free to share those things; it doesn’t go out of that group. It’s difficult for men to share in a prison outside of a group like that, because you don’t share those sorts of things, you don’t show the chinks in your armor.
A spiritual family for the men
“It has become a spiritual family for many of the men. They say things like ‘I’m learning to be more tolerant,’ or ‘I didn’t realize what a knucklehead I used to be; this has helped me change that.’ Each group member is at a different stage in their faith journey and they have an opportunity to learn and grow.”
José, one of the inmates, wrote in The Paraclete, a publication of the Restorative Justice Ministry of the cathedral, about the importance of the group in his life.
“When I first joined the group,’’ he wrote, “I was asked, ‘Why are you here? What are you seeking?’ My answer was, ‘Because I feel alone and need you.’ And that’s the truth. I, like many inmates, feel isolated and need people [volunteers] to come and speak to us about God, and show us how to replace feeling alone and isolated with the feeling that we are part of and belong to the Body of Christ.”
Another inmate, Javier, wrote, “We are all called to be doers of the word and not just hearers. That is why it is important to our congregation behind these barbed-wire fences to be united with you, the outside community, our brothers and sisters in Christ.
“We are truly blessed with the men and women from the outside congregation who volunteer an hour or two a week out of their busy lives to share their knowledge and love for our Lord. In turn, we are well prepared to share this knowledge and love with others in the institution and, with the grace of God, we’ll continue to share this knowledge upon our release into society.”
When the men complete a program, they receive an attractive certificate that does not mention the prison. The chapel at DVI is called Our Lady of Hope, so the certificate reads “Cathedral of the Annunciation, Diocese of Stockton, Our Lady of Hope,” and describes the program, indicating that the man has completed it. The certificate is signed by pastor of the parish, the prison chaplain, and Irene.
“When they get out and go home, they can frame it,’’ Irene said. “It addresses the human beings that they are, not what they did.”
“One of the neatest experiences we’ve had,” Irene said, “was when a fellow who paroled out and stayed in the area … came back and, at our Holy Thursday Mass in 2014, had his feet washed. It was such a powerful moment for him, his eyes welled up; it was a wonderful thing to see.”
“Sometimes the men express their appreciativeness of my giving my time, but they don’t realize how much they give back. It helps me to see the human spirit that remains in them, no matter what they have done.
“I find that two things that are the hardest for them to accept are that God loves them despite what they have done and God forgives them if they truly are remorseful. Nothing is so heinous that God won’t forgive you. It’s such a hard concept.’’