August 7, 2009

Ecumenical prison ministry shares Christ’s love and forgiveness

Bill Clear, left, and Bill Pfiefer, both members of St. Monica Parish, help bake 413 dozen cookies on April 25 at the parish for Kairos Prison Ministries retreats that happened this spring at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield and Rockville Correctional Facility in Rocville. (Submitted photo)

Bill Clear, left, and Bill Pfiefer, both members of St. Monica Parish, help bake 413 dozen cookies on April 25 at the parish for Kairos Prison Ministries retreats that happened this spring at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield and Rockville Correctional Facility in Rockville. (Submitted photo)

By Sean Gallagher

Living in a prison has sometimes been described as “doing time.”

The time offenders are “doing” is often that period of waiting until they’re back on the outside.

But for the men and women who make Kairos Prison Ministry possible, the time offenders spend on the inside can be all the difference in creating a good future for them.

“Time” is in the very name of this ecumenical prison retreat ministry. “Kairos” is a Greek word that describes a special moment in time, often a key moment in a person’s life.

For archdiocesan Catholics involved in Kairos Prison Ministry, it’s the moment when offenders encounter Christ, his forgiveness and his unconditional love.

Kairos, an international ministry, is active in nearly all correctional facilities in Indiana, including prisons for women.

As an ecumenical ministry, it focuses on basic Christian beliefs held by all Christians, including Catholics.

Studies in the 1990s of the South Carolina and Florida correctional systems showed a dramatically lower recidivism rate for offenders who participated in a Kairos retreat and stayed with the Kairos program for two years or more than for the general prison population.

In both states, offenders in high security correctional facilities had a recidivism rate as high as 81 percent.

For offenders who participated in a Kairos or similar faith-based event, the rate dropped to 53 percent. For those who participated in Kairos for at least two years, the recidivism rate dropped to 9 percent in South Carolina and 11 percent in Florida.

“Guys that have gone through this and can stay connected to a Christian community don’t go back to prison,” said David Garrison, a member of St. Martin of Tours Parish in Martinsville.

Garrison has helped lead Kairos retreats at the Plainfield Correctional Facility in Plainfield.

“These men are changed men,” he said. “They can become productive members of society.”

One changed man is Douglas Harrell. Now an assistant pastor at West Parkview Missionary Baptist Church in Indianapolis, Harrell, 49, spent 10 years at the Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton, Ind., after being convicted for the intent to sell illegal drugs.

Although a Christian before being incarcerated, Harrell was discouraged by receiving little or no support from Christians on the outside.

“Then, all of a sudden, I was faced with Kairos,” Harrell said. “Here were people taking time out of their schedule. They were professional people and people from all walks of life willing to come in there and share Jesus and show the love of Jesus.”

Harrell was also moved by seeing the positive effect that he and the offenders who encountered Christ on the retreat had on the Kairos team members.

“You could see the hand of God at work,” he said. “When he deals with hearts, he looks at them from an overall standpoint. He’s dealing with everybody. And we were able to see that in action. It really just changed my life forever.”

Jane Kuemmerle, a member of St. Monica Parish in Indianapolis, experienced this when she helped lead a Kairos retreat for women offenders last fall at the Rockville Correctional Facility in Rockville.

Near the end of the four-day retreat, offenders can whisper something to a team member about what that person has meant to him or her during the retreat.

“When the lady [who sat] across from me came behind me, she said, ‘Jane, when I sat across from you all weekend and you smiled at me and I looked into your big brown eyes, I saw Jesus,’ ” Kuemmerle said. “That’s the kind of response that comes from them.

“I had tears coming down my cheeks. I thought, ‘Who is she talking to? How could I be that for her?’ ”

Garrison said much about Christianity that might be taken for granted by many people in society is unknown to a large number of offenders.

“For many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever even been exposed to this term, Christianity, or the fact that they could possibly be forgiven,” Garrison said. “That’s a major concept for many of these guys. We can’t even begin to understand the amount of anger and hurt and bitterness inside the prison walls.”

Such challenging circumstances and other special aspects of prison ministry require a good deal of formation for the retreat’s presenting team.

They have six meetings lasting several hours each over the course of four to six months before the retreat.

Sister Demetria Smith, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa and a member of SS. Peter and Paul Cathedral Parish in Indianapolis, helped lead the retreat last fall at Rockville.

She said the team formation also builds a cohesion among the team members that is helpful once the retreat starts.

“When you go in and you begin to hear the stories of the offenders, you can be torn apart,” Sister Demetria said. “So we really minister to one another as well.”

In addition to helping the offenders experience Christ’s love and forgiveness, the retreat leaders also hope to build up a Christian community within the prison.

That is why team members return to the prison a week after the retreat to help offenders create “prayer and share groups” where, Garrison said, the offenders “can become vulnerable to one another and relate to one another.”

Individual team members then return to the prison each week to facilitate group meetings.

“It’s sort of the non-glamorous part [of Kairos],” Garrison said. “But ongoing facilitation is actually the most important part.”

The Kairos retreats that happen at prisons twice a year need a lot of support beyond the efforts of the presenting team. According to Garrison, in the weeks leading up to the retreat, people from all of the team members’ congregations bake as many as 50,000 cookies that are distributed to every offender and staff member in the prison.

For the team members, this is a sign of the gratitude they have for the hospitality of those at the prison since they disrupt ordinary life there. It’s also a concrete expression of their love for everyone at the facility.

Others take shifts praying around the clock for the team and the offenders during the entire retreat.

Some people are involved in other Kairos ministries. They include Kairos Outside, a retreat for women outside of a prison who have been affected by the incarceration of a friend or relative or their own past incarceration, and Kairos Torch, where Christian mentoring relationships are established with youth offenders.

James Helbing, also a St. Monica parishioner, has been a Kairos team member with Garrison.

“God wants us there,” he said. “He’s called us to be there. And he’s got the offenders there for a reason. And it takes that whole mix to make the whole thing work.”

(For more information about Kairos Prison Ministry, log on to, send an e-mail to or call 765-516-0130.)

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