May 1, 2009

Faith, Hope and Charity / David Siler

Show mercy of Jesus to the least of his people

David SilerAs followers of Jesus, we follow a man who was arrested, judged guilty, imprisoned and put to death. This Easter season is the hopeful time when we reflect on his release from prison—in this case, the prison of death.

For approximately 17,000 Indiana citizens, their hope for a “resurrection” in their lives following their time in prison is very bleak. This is the number of prison inmates in our state that will be released each year back into our communities. Nearly 40 percent of these returning citizens will be back in prison within three years.

At any given time, there are about 28,000 men and women populating Indiana’s prisons. Another 140,000 are either on probation or parole—those out of prison, but continuing to be monitored by the justice system before being completely free.

Prisoners are among the few populations that Jesus identified by name in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25, when he told us how we treated him by treating “the least ones.” I imagine that knowing in advance the fate that he was to meet, Jesus could identify with the loneliness, isolation and hopelessness of those living behind bars.

This often forgotten population of neighbors is certainly not among the easiest to show compassion. Befriending a prisoner during or following jail is not for everyone, but clearly there is a need for more of us to share our gifts of time and attention. After all, we are believers in the grace of forgiveness and the hope of resurrection.

Unless you have been incarcerated yourself or had a friend or family member arrested and convicted of a crime, these 28,000 citizens can easily remain nameless and unknown. Yet knowing that more than 11,000 of them will be back in prison within three years tells us that they need much more than they are getting when they return to our cities and towns.

As you can likely guess, an enormous percentage of those committing crimes come from broken homes where they grew up with one or no parents. When they return to our communities—and while in prison for that matter—they need people to fill this gaping hole in their lives.

There are individuals and groups in some of our Catholic parishes that have made prison ministry a part of their service to Christ.

An offender returning to a community where he or she has a mentor is more likely to stay out of prison and find the mercy of Jesus. Mentors help the

ex-offender find a place to live and work, and show him or her how to make a positive impact in the world. More mentors are needed to be the face of Christ to these men and women.

Employers can play an important role by intentionally hiring ex-offenders who demonstrate a desire to earn an honest wage. A felony conviction makes it extremely difficult to find a job, leaving many to return to a life of crime. I have recently become acquainted with a middle-aged man who served 10 years in federal prison for trafficking marijuana, and he says that he has paid his debt to society and desperately wants to do honest work but no one will hire him.

Are you being called to show the mercy of Jesus to one of these “least of my people”?

(David Siler is executive director of the Secretariat for Catholic Charities and Family Ministries. E-mail him at

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