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...I was in prison and you visited me...

A close friend and a Cornerstone brother of mine has found prison ministry rewarding.  He weekly visits with men who have been convicted of varied crimes, removed from society, and are incarcerated in the hellish world of a prison.

REC Retreats Information

To visit a prisoner, maybe someone who is in prison for murder, and talk to him about himself and his relationship with God is, according to my friend, a very moving thing. 

I have another friend - not involved in ministry - who was convicted of selling drugs in the bar that he owned in a small town about thirty-five miles north of New York City.  He had subsequently been exonerated of the crime, but not before spending a few years in prison. 

We were talking over a couple of beers one evening and he told me the story.  One small part of his story is indelibly written in my memory: his first days in prison.  This big, tough man who’d always commanded respect and even fear, became sheepish as he related these pages of his life to me.

“From the moment I stepped off the bus and walked into the prison, to the moment I left the prison and knew I was never going back, I was in fear; a level of fear that I had never known possible.  Of course I could never show it, but I was terrified every minute of every day.”  He told me. 

“When I see those documentaries that show a lion chasing and finally bringing down a small deer, the animal’s neck locked in the jaws of the big cat, I begin to feel that terror welling up inside me again…the terror I felt in prison.”  As he spoke, his whole countenance changed; it put a chill up my spine.

Is this is what my Cornerstone friend exposes himself to weekly?

As if weekly visits aren’t enough, my friend brings weekend religious retreats to these prisoners.   I would like to share this email message he sent to a few of us after one of these retreats.

Hello All: 

Thanks to all of you for your many prayers and Palanca letters (letters of encouragement).  The PRISON NAME REC*1 Retreat was a complete success.  I can't tell you how many times tears rolled down my face.  And yes, some of those tears were tears of sadness as a result of some of the men who poured their hearts out by sharing their painful pasts.  There were also many, many tears of joy when you see a transformation taking place in the hearts and souls of many as well.  To witness the presence of Christ in a soul that had never met HIM previously was incredibly profound.   It astounded me to witness inmates who for 25 - 30 years had lived a life in darkness, a life where they refused to allow anyone to see what they were really all about - to finally say "I'm done with how I have been living my life...my old ways just don't work anymore and I'm ready to now accept Jesus."  It was obvious to me that many of the men literally forgot that they were incarcerated.  They felt free for the first time in their entire lives.  Their minds were filled with joy and hope - a feeling that most of them had never experienced before.

 It was truly a tremendous experience for me to be part of this wonderful weekend and I recommend anyone who wants to have their own faith rejuvenated to attend a REC Weekend Retreat.

 May God Bless US All...

What a wonderful story of the rewards of ministry.  Extreme as it may seem to many of us, prison ministry is one of the things Christ spoke of specifically when talking about extending a helping hand to Him.  In Matthew 25:34-36 He says, ''Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food...in prison and you visited me…”  

Love God With All… The First Commandment

Showing God our love for Him by loving and serving His other children is a cornerstone of Christ’s teachings.  When asked what the most important commandment was, Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment.  The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.  The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”

While bringing a retreat to a group of prisoners is remarkable, the foundation of prison ministry is the weekly visit.  REC, and other similar organizations can teach you about weekly prison ministry.  The contact with a person from the outside alone can lift the spirits of a inmate, but it is the conversations about their relationship with God that fills them with hope and brings purpose into their life.  I am told that you, the visitor, will experience much the same benefit as the prisoner.

In many cases these men have been abandon in prison; their family and friends having ended all communication with them long ago.  Imagine a man serving a 20, 30 year or life sentence.  Imagine the difference a strong relationship with God could make in the life of a man or woman such as this; the importance conversations with one such as you would have in giving life to the gifts that God has given this person, gifts given for the purpose of fulfilling God’s will.  And maybe it is also God’s will that you give this support.  Do you think that you have been given the corresponding gift to this ministry? 

Only you can know that.

Your visit or letter is the only contact they have with the world they left behind.  The only world they know is the highly regulated, mean and unforgiving, institutional one within the prison walls.  The weekly visit of a new friend in God can make all the difference in the world.  

Keep in mind that the prisoners in the REC program are not the average inmates; they are a very small percentage of the prison population.  These are people who have come back to their religion, and want to build a better relationship with God. 

The men and women who perform prison ministry are helping these lost sheep, who are trying to rejoin the herd.  They want to rebuild their relationship with God, and they have come to the understanding that even in prison they can live a Christian life and grow closer to God.  Can you imagine how hard this is to do?  This is why the support that prison ministry gives is so important. 

This ministry helps these individuals to keep and grow in their faith, to live a life of hope in the face of hopelessness, and to hold at bay the evils of the world they live in.

Visiting inmates in prison, especially in maximum-security prisons, is not for everyone.  Although, while you might not think it is something you can do, you may be wrong.  This ministry does not require a life-time commitment; you can simply try it.  If you have any interest at all, ask a priest at your parish, or call a nearby prison and ask to speak to the Catholic Chaplin.

You want to do prison ministry, but you don’t want to go into a prison.

Letters of encouragement, or Palanca letters, are a wonderful way for anyone to do prison ministry. 

Palanca is Spanish for lever.  A lever is a mechanical device that helps one lift a heavy object that they could not do on their own.  The Palanca letter is a spiritual device that helps one lift a heavy burden from their heart, that they cannot rid themselves of alone.

Writing a Palanca a letter about God and one's relationship with Him to someone in prison, always brings the Holy Spirit into mix.  These letters are used during retreats to show the retreatent that he is not alone in his quest for God.  To receive a letter of encouragement from a stranger shows the recipient that the Holy Spirit has moved another person to aid him in his quest; that through a mutual love for God in Christ Jesus, a stranger has reached through the prison walls to touch him. 

 

Reference:

*1. REC is Residents Encounter Christ, the name of the organization dedicated to prison ministries.

 

 

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