“’For I was hungry and you gave me food,
I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ ‘… when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’” Matt 25:35-40
So often in our society the disenfranchised are overlooked, passed-by and left alone. These could be our neighbors, our relatives or just someone down on their luck. Described in the succeeding paragraphs is a segment of the population who in many ways has betrayed or perhaps even scandalized society. If you are a victim of a crime, the betrayal and scandal is personal. Nevertheless, this segment of our population is the incarcerated, and, in many ways, disenfranchised. Unfortunately, the statistical growth of this population (based on the Colorado Department of Corrections) has quadrupled in the past fifteen years; the most significant growth has been in the number of women. Often addictions (drugs and alcohol) play a role leading to a downward spiral in a person’s life, landing them into the judicial system.
Thus, the compelling question: can those who work in Judicial/Correctional institutions rehabilitate an individual? In reality the answer is — absolutely no! However, someone can change each of us if we ask. For the past seven years, the privilege of serving in the jails, prisons, detention centers (youth and immigration) has been shared among priests, deacons and approximately eighty lay ministers (both men and women). Our ministry is to be the light and salt of the world and shout from the rooftops that Jesus Christ has risen! Our charge is to bring light into very dark places, to share a smile with someone who is lonely.
To share the Gospel message of a just and merciful God: these moments of serving our brothers and sisters, typically on a weekly basis, can be just as transforming for the minister as those being served. This transformation in our lives can be similar to that of Peter, James and John, who went up Mount Tabor with Jesus as He was transfigured, revealing His divinity and His glory. The conversion of these three apostles at that moment was certainly immediate. And so it is in our lives and the lives of those behind bars, we have the ability to ask the Lord to forgive us and help us to “take off our old person and put on a new person.”(cf. Eph 4:24) We can petition that the Lord will “take out our stony hearts and put a new natural heart” (Ez 36:26) that will be dedicated to the Lord. Thus, our eyes are opened to recognize that Jesus lives in the jail …. “, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Matt 25:40
The Archdioceses of Denver Jail /Prison ministry is currently serving approximately 21 institutions on a regular basis, both juvenile and adult; the majority of the ministry is catechesis and preparing offenders for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We also provide Communion Services, Word services and Bible study. Once a month some of the inmates can go to Confession and attend Mass. We offer this message in English and Spanish, bringing Bibles, rosaries, prayer books and Holy cards.
Why is this ministry important in the life of the Body of Christ, its ministers, and in particular a deacon? Jesus was a prisoner; albeit innocent, and convicted to death unjustly. He lives today in the detention facilities where we are called to visit Him in the incarcerated who live there. Jail and prison ministry allows the minister of charity an opportunity to serve in an otherwise chaotic, sad place and time in the life of a brother and sister … to bring them the hope, love, mercy and compassion of Jesus Christ. It means extending a human dignity that recognizes, regardless of what they are accused of, they are still children of God. As icons of Jesus the Servant, serving in this capacity brings different challenges to each deacon. Serving the famous and the infamous, praying with them in a time of vulnerability, is as much a privilege as a responsibility. Therefore, the catechists who volunteer their time guiding offenders to repentance, and conversion, while being their intercessor are paramount, particularly in this moment of crisis.
Thanks to those brothers already serving in this ministry. If you are looking for a ministry to serve in that is not only challenging but, fulfilling, or know of someone that would be looking to fulfill their baptismal call, please contact Deacon Steve (of course, deacons need to contact the Office of the Diaconate so that it can be added to your assignment). Spanish is a real plus but, not necessary.
Deacon Steve Vallero