November 17, 2017

Corrections Ministry conference promotes collaboration, compassion

Misty Wallace and Keith Blackburn, now partners in ministering to the incarcerated, share about their journey to redemption and forgiveness after Blackburn’s attempted murder of Wallace 15 years ago. The pair spoke on Oct. 28 at the archdiocesan Corrections Ministry conference at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

Misty Wallace and Keith Blackburn, now partners in ministering to the incarcerated, share about their journey to redemption and forgiveness after Blackburn’s attempted murder of Wallace 15 years ago. The pair spoke on Oct. 28 at the archdiocesan Corrections Ministry conference at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus. (Submitted photo by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

COLUMBUS—With a steady, even voice, Misty Wallace related the worst day of her life. On Oct. 18, 1992, at the age of 18, she stopped in a parking lot on the southwest side of Indianapolis to use a pay phone. Moments after hanging up, a stranger shot her in the head, took her purse and left her for dead.

Wallace recounted the attack, a miraculous recovery and her struggle for emotional healing to about 100 people gathered at St. Bartholomew Parish in Columbus on Oct. 28 during an archdiocesan conference titled “Corrections: A Ministry of Hope & Salvation.” Her audience, previously unaware of her experience, first expressed shock then sympathy.

One face in the room, however, was full of sadness and regret. He had heard the story dozens of times, but Keith Blackburn was still visibly moved. He was the shooter.

“What kind of monster,” he asked the crowd when Wallace finished her story, “would go into a parking lot and do what you have heard I have done?”

Both victim and shooter have undergone a long journey of conversion and forgiveness. Today, they work side by side in a ministry called Bridges to Life, an organization that brings victims into prisons to share their stories with inmates.

“The inmates can relate because either they’ve committed that certain crime, or they’re familiar with that crime,” Wallace said. She is now the Indianapolis regional coordinator for the organization.

“It’s understanding their crime, taking accountability, being responsible for the crime, then moving forward and giving back to the community in a positive way,” she said, knowing from experience that redemption is possible for even the hardest of hearts.

“I got to look her in the face and say, ‘I’m sorry,’ ” Blackburn said. “It was [through] Bridges to Life that she knew that I was sincere, and her forgiveness wasn’t wasted on me.”

The conference was the first of its kind sponsored by the Archdiocese of Indianapolis. Its purpose was to inform and encourage those who want to minister to the incarcerated.

“This is geared toward two audiences: those who are currently involved in the ministry, and those who are thinking about becoming involved, discerning involvement,” said Lynne Weisenbach, the coordinator of the archdiocese’s new Corrections Ministry.

The conference began with a celebration of Mass, then participants heard informative and inspiring talks, visited information tables for local organizations and broke into topic‑geared workshops.

“It’s really important to bring people together in this ministry so they know that others are working alongside them, they know what the best practices are, they know what other Protestant or Christian groups are doing as well [so] we can collaborate with these ministries,” explained Deacon Michael Braun, director of pastoral ministries for the archdiocese.

Though many of those ministering in jails and prisons may never know the fruits of their labor or have a dramatic story like Wallace and Blackburn, the attendees were reassured that this type of ministry is crucial.

“Most of those that we minister to think that God gave up on them a long time ago, and then you show up,” said Father Ron Cloutier, one of the keynote speakers and director of Correctional Ministries for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston in Texas.

“And that’s why they’re happy to see you, because what they see in you is Emmanuel, God’s presence,” he said.

Presenters continually spoke about the spiritual and emotional darkness present in prisons and jails—a darkness that no small number of people experience. According to the Indiana Department of Corrections, more than 25,000 people are currently incarcerated in the state. Records also show that more than 11,500 people were admitted into the state’s correctional facilities in 2016 alone.

“The Church has to be missionary,” said Father Cloutier. “We have to get out of our rectories. We have to go after the lost and forgotten.”

“The words of Christ that were shared with me had such an impact on my life, strengthened me,” said Tim Stevenson, one of the breakout leaders. Now a member of St. Bartholomew Parish, he previously served time for a felony conviction.

“You shouldn’t turn your back on someone for being incarcerated,” he asserted.

The daylong conference evolved out of an effort by the Church in central and southern Indiana to more effectively engage in prison ministry. Although many Catholics were volunteering in jails and prisons, no formal structure existed to recruit, connect and support these missionaries.

To remedy the situation, a task force was founded last year to develop recommendations on the topic, and Weisenbach became the coordinator of a newly-formed archdiocesan Corrections Ministry office. She now aims to keep the conference attendees connected and add to their number.

“It’s just an incredibly powerful ministry, and I’m hopeful that we can increase the number of people who are in the ministry,” Weisenbach said. “There is no doubt that it impacts the people who are being ministered to, but equally it impacts us, the ministers.”

Weisenbach spoke of two distinct ways to serve convicted community members: working inside of prisons, and working with those who have been released. While volunteers are needed in both ministries, she cited a “profound need” for people to help the formerly incarcerated re-enter society.

“Things are stacked against these people when they get out, and yet they really do want to be successful,” she said. “A lot of them have turned a corner, and they do have the will to make it, but they don’t necessarily have the skill to make it.”

There are a whole host of obstacles for returning citizens, Weisenbach noted, including large problems like lack of employment and small issues like not knowing what to do if transportation fails.

“If the bus doesn’t come and they have to make it to the parole officer by 10 a.m. and they don’t make it, then they’re back in,” Weisenbach explained.

The statewide recidivism rate, that is, those who are returned to incarceration within three years of release, was nearly 40 percent last year, according to the Department of Corrections. When former inmates are paired with mentors or assisted by re-entry organizations, however, that number can drop significantly.

“We have a God of second chances, so we can really help these men and women returning to society by helping them overcome the barriers to re-entry,” said Deacon Braun.

In the Gospel of St. Matthew, Jesus directly states that he was “in prison and you visited me” when any of his followers did this “for one of these least brothers of mine” (Mt 25:36, 40). Many of those present for the conference cited this passage as the reason that they began volunteering.

“Prison ministry is one of the easiest to get into because just by you coming in, you give them hope,” explained John Bennett, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Santa Claus, Ind., in the Evansville Diocese. John and his wife Stella have volunteered at a local prison for 20 years.

Wallace freely acknowledged that, as a victim herself, she first wanted nothing to do with ministering to inmates. But after six years of working in prisons, she knows that her witness has helped to change lives.

“The thing that’s powerful is seeing hope in their eyes and in their hearts to be able to make the right choices,” said Wallace. “Ultimately, that’s what it is, choosing to do the right things.”

The Corrections Ministry office aims to make the conference an annual event. The office also maintains contact with all of the prisons and most of the jails within the borders of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis to facilitate connections between those incarcerated and those desiring to minister.

“We’re all God’s family. We’re all one,” said Weisenbach. “This is really about hope and salvation.”
 

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington. For more information about the archdiocesan Corrections Ministry, go to www.archindy.org/corrections or contact Lynne Weisenbach at lweisenbach@archindy.org or 317-592-4012.)

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