March 3, 2017

Deeper commitment to prison ministry hopes to change lives of all involved

As the chairperson of the archdiocese’s task force on prison ministry, Lynne Weisenbach hopes that parishes and individuals will have an increased impact in making a difference in the lives of people in jails and prisons in central and southern Indiana. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

As the chairperson of the archdiocese’s task force on prison ministry, Lynne Weisenbach hopes that parishes and individuals will have an increased impact in making a difference in the lives of people in jails and prisons in central and southern Indiana. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

First in a continuing series

By John Shaughnessy

Lynne Weisenbach knows it sounds unusual to describe her time in a jail as “sacred.”

After all, she acknowledges that it was disturbing for her to surrender her keys and her driver’s license as she went through the jail’s security clearance area.

And that uneasy feeling heightened when she heard the door close behind her as she entered the jail.

Still, there is one sound that is more memorable to her as she recalls those evenings when she visited the female inmates in that county jail, and prayed alongside them during a Mass that a priest celebrated there.

“There were 25 to 30 women in a crowded, stark room, and they’d start singing,” she says with a smile. “So many of the women came from religious backgrounds, and they appreciated the opportunity to sing. Their eyes were closed, and their singing filled the room. At that moment, jail was a sacred place.”

She pauses before she adds, “I wasn’t prepared for the spirituality of the women. As we were leaving, they would say, ‘Thank you for coming, thank you for not forgetting us.’ You could see they wanted to hug us, but it wasn’t allowed. We could shake hands—the grasp was unbelievable. And you could see how much it meant to them by the look in their eyes.”

Weisenbach shares that perspective as the chairperson of the archdiocese’s prison ministry task force—a group that met regularly for six months in 2016 to formulate a plan to help individuals, parishes and the broader archdiocese itself make an even deeper commitment to prison ministry.

While the task force has offered five major recommendations (see related story), Weisenbach views prison ministry as “a magnetic force” that changes the lives of everyone involved in it.

‘It’s about mercy and redemption’

“A lot of the women were an inspiration to me,” Weisenbach says. “They held onto their faith in really tough circumstances. And it’s a good challenge to do this. I see it as a way to grow in my faith, and to serve in a way that is underserved and not always understood.

“Some of the misunderstanding is that if you help in prisons, it devalues or undermines what happens to the victim. But this isn’t about not respecting or not honoring the victims. We do. This is about God’s mercy for these people. It’s about mercy and redemption.”

The desire for a deeper commitment to prison ministry is one of the legacies of Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin, the former archbishop of Indianapolis, who viewed building relationships with people in prisons and jails as an opportunity for the archdiocese, its members and him personally to draw closer to God.

So with the help of the archdiocese’s chancellor, Annette “Mickey” Lentz, Cardinal Tobin created a task force to develop ways to increase that commitment.

“I can see why Cardinal Tobin chose this ministry for greater focus,” Lentz says. “This is social justice in the truest sense. The archdiocese respects and upholds the dignity of every human being.

“I learned so much from the task force, and became so impressed by the volunteers’ service and dedication to those in our jails and prisons. I truly believe more of the laity will want to become more engaged in this.”

That’s the hope. And the need and the opportunity for prison ministry are significant, according to the task force—especially considering the pervasive presence of the prison system within the boundaries of the archdiocese, and how it affects so many lives and families.

The impact on children

Consider some of the insights that the 18 members of the task force shared in their final report to Cardinal Tobin:
 

  • There are nearly 27,000 people in state prisons and county jails in Indiana, according to 2016 statistics from the Indiana Department of Corrections.
  • About half of those people are in prisons and jails within the boundaries of the archdiocese—many of them housed in large facilities in New Castle, Plainfield and Putnamville.
  • “There are three separate federal facilities in one large Bureau of Prisons complex at Terre Haute. Together, the federal complex can house a maximum of 2,770 men, with [the] current population slightly lower.”

The insights take a more human quality when the task force considers the challenges faced by the 20,000 inmates who are released from Indiana prisons and jails every year.

“Without a job, it is nearly impossible to establish a new life and become productive citizens. However, nearly 75 percent of Hoosier employers are reluctant or simply refuse to hire ex-offenders,” the report noted. “When such individuals are unemployed, their chances of returning to prison are 60 percent.

“More than 70 percent of released inmates are parents. Children of these parents are most likely to be in the lowest 5 percent of income earners and generally obtain less education than their parents.”

‘I keep thinking about God’s mercy’

While the task force noted that many parishes in the archdiocese provide “exemplary” outreach to people in prisons and jails, Weisenbach says there is a need for an organizational structure that will offer improved communication and coordination concerning prison ministry.

“I would personally love to see the deaneries and the parishes view this as a ministry of social justice that can add to the life of their parish and their individual spiritual lives—as well as the value it brings to the inmates and those who are in re-entry.

“There are so many opportunities to serve our brothers and sisters who are incarcerated. You don’t have to go into the prison to support prison ministry. Schools can get involved by sending Easter cards and Christmas cards. Parishes can provide Bibles and other spiritual reading material for them.”

She has seen the impact that spiritual material has had on the women she has visited in jail.

“We’d take Bibles in English and Spanish. When the women would bring their Bibles with them, we’d see that they were dog-eared. It mattered greatly to them.”

Prison guards have also told Weisenbach that the volunteers’ visits and interest help to lessen tensions among inmates, aid them in channeling their emotions in a positive way, and lead them to learn to seek God’s help.

Weisenbach also knows the impact that her visits have had on her relationship with God.

“I keep thinking about God’s mercy—the idea of forgiveness and the need for redemption,” she says. “You know God forgives, and it makes you think about redemption in your own life.”

She hopes that opportunity to grow closer to God—and make a difference in the lives of people in jails and prisons—will lead potential volunteers to look beyond any fears they may have.

“Don’t be afraid,” Weisenbach says. “I keep going back to people’s eyes. You look someone in the eyes, and we’re all God’s children. At the end of the day, we are all created in God’s image.”

(For information about prison ministry in the archdiocese, check the website, www.archindy.org/prison. You can also contact Deacon Michael Braun, director of the archdiocesan Secretariat for Pastoral Ministries, by e-mail at mbraun@archindy.org or by phone at 317-236-1531 or 1-800-382-9836, ext. 1531.)

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