Some sisters have done Prison Ministry for many years… One of our sisters, S. Julianna O’Neil, who passed away, quietly left the house twice a week in Prince Albert for twenty years to visit her “guys” in the Federal Penitentiary. There she taught catechesis and even led some of the people who were incarcerated through RCIA to become Catholics at Easter time. She introduced them to the “Word of God” and led them as they studied and shared scripture passages from the Bible. She was a beautiful presence whom they trusted, loved, respected and confided in. I am sure that she heard many informal confessions because of her discreet compassionate, listening ear. She was the hands and feet of Jesus to many of them. Fortunately, a ministry of presence continues as S. Aline Couture and S. Raymonde Ouellette leave the house quietly to “be with” the prisoners on a weekly basis.
S. RéAnne Letourneau shares her experience of being a volunteer for Friends on the Outside (FOTO)….. She says, “It is actually Jesus that I meet through the inmates.”
It is sometimes easy to judge and think negatively of people in jail but I, S. RéAnne Letourneau, try to see the child behind the person. What happened in that person’s life to bring his or her to this point behind bars? They are yearning for freedom, especially from the chains around their heart. What did this little child experience growing up…poverty, violence, abuse, coping through various addictions? These things can lead to making unhealthy choices which often lead to crime. This cycle of unhealthy behavior is the only lesson some of these kids have ever learnt. When we understand where they are coming from, we can become more compassionate rather than condemning them because of mistakes or bad choices.
There does come a time in a person’s life when he or she needs to make positive and healthy choices in life, and become accountable for his or her actions, despite what has happened in the past. This is part of our aim. FOTO’s (Friends on the Outside) mission is to journey with inmates ex-inmates and so that they can encounter a God of love, mercy and forgiveness, leading them to take responsibility for their actions and their lives so that they can live in inner freedom with dignity and respect.
How does this happen? It doesn’t happen overnight. In order to make that journey of reconciliation and change, a person has to feel that they are loved and not judged. I ask myself, Why would I want to bother to change, to have hope if I feel no one really cares about me or if I can’t have the support systems in place to give me a chance? How can a person show love, respect, dignity, compassion to another when they have never experienced this care themselves?
That’s why FOTO exists and why I am committed to this organization…to show them that someone does care, that someone believes in their goodness and that they are not the sum of their mistakes, but that they are the beloved children of God. It’s all about making connections and building relationships which help in the healing process.
What if I saw an inmates’ imprisonment and need for freedom reflecting my own “imprisonment” and need for freedom? Looking at our own self and embracing our own brokenness changes how we see the other. It breaks down judgments, hardness of heart and can create a compassionate heart (to truly suffer with another). We can then find equality in our brokenness and journey with that person in respect and gentleness. If I can stand in solidarity with that person, by simply being a compassionate presence and allowing him or her to be the same for me…it changes how I see ministry and living the Gospel. It’s not so much what I “do” but the transformation that happens within me as I do it.
I cannot doubt that God has led me to FOTO at this point in my life because so much inner healing and freedom has happened within me through this experience. I find it appropriately powerful that I would encounter freedom from my own chains by going inside the prison, meeting the inmates and journeying through this experience of liberation in my life. Being a volunteer with Friends on the Outside has been one of the greatest blessings in my life and for this I will always be extremely grateful!
Lastly, while it’s true that we try to be the face, hands and heart of God (the Word made flesh), my experience has been that it’s actually Jesus that I meet through the inmates. That’s why Matthew 25 is our motto: “When I was hungry, thirsty, a stranger, sick and in prison you visited me.” Prison ministry is for me a Gospel mandate!