July 18, 2014

‘They’re still God’s children’: Amid razor wires and prison walls, volunteers change inmates’ lives as well as their own

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin blesses Erica McCaffery during a Mass that he celebrated in the chapel at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis on June 29. To his left distributing Communion is Deacon Dan Collier. About 15 Catholic volunteers visit and teach the women in prison every week. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin blesses Erica McCaffery during a Mass that he celebrated in the chapel at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis on June 29. To his left distributing Communion is Deacon Dan Collier. About 15 Catholic volunteers visit and teach the women in prison every week. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: Of all of Christ’s instructions to reach out to others in need, the one that can be the most intimidating and difficult for many people is to visit those in prison. Yet these visits can not only change the lives of the prisoner, they can change the lives of the person making the visit. Here is the story of three Catholics whose lives have been changed through their prison ministry. It’s the second in a continuing series of stories called "The Catholic Connection: Changing Lives in the Criminal Justice System." Read our previous story here.)

By John Shaughnessy

The letter still touches and inspires Laura Kazlas.

She received the letter several weeks after she felt “very strongly urged by the Holy Spirit” to have the children she taught in a religious education program make Christmas cards for the inmates at a nearby correctional facility.

“I called the chaplain and asked for a list of names of inmates that never received any visitors, phone calls or letters,” Kazlas recalls.

“We made Christmas cards for these men. About a month later, the deacon from our parish gave me a letter that an inmate sent to the church. He thanked us for the handmade Christmas card. He had been in prison for over 20 years, and had never received a handmade Christmas card. He said it was the best part of his Christmas.”

The next part of the man’s letter touched her even more.

“His bunkie was a Catholic who had just begun to teach him the rosary, and he attended Mass a couple of times. He was full of hope for his future, and wanted to set things straight with God before he was released from prison.

“I never forgot his letter. It deeply touched my heart.”

That letter has continued to inspire Kazlas during the past seven years as she has served as a volunteer and a visitor at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis.

She’s involved in Bible study and catechism classes with the women during the school year. She attends Mass with the women every Sunday evening—Masses that are celebrated by priests from the Indianapolis West Deanery.

“Christ called us to visit those in prison for a reason,” says Kazlas, one of about 15 Catholic volunteers at the Indiana Women’s Prison.

“These men, women and children are sometimes rejected and abandoned by their own families. They feel like they are forgotten by society, that they are not worthy of anyone’s love, and that their sin can never be forgiven. Their sin is a heavy weight on their soul.”

The sacrament of reconciliation offers a measure of healing and forgiveness for the women, Kazlas says.

“Decades of guilt and remorse are often healed through the sacrament of confession. Then regular Mass attendance becomes the oasis of peace in their lives. It is the one place where we are all loved, accepted and welcomed, regardless as to what else may be going on in our lives.”

Kazlas has seen the power of that healing in one of the women who recently became a Catholic.

“Her crime is very well known. Books and TV shows had been written about her life and her crime,” says Kazlas, a member of St. Malachy Parish in Brownsburg.

“She came to Mass every Sunday for three and a half years, and attended all our classes. I talked to her just before she joined our Church—about her experience in the Catholic program and why did she finally decide she wanted to become a Catholic.

“She told me it was because we accepted her and never treated her any differently than anyone else. She never fit in with the other worship services, but felt like she had come ‘home’ when she came to Mass with us.

“The day she entered our Church, her family was present at Mass. I was filling out some paperwork and needed to ask her mom a few questions about her baptism. Her mother thanked us for what we had done for her daughter—that her daughter felt better, that some of her sins had been forgiven. I looked at her and told her that all of her daughter’s sins had been forgiven that day, through the sacrament of confession that she went to.”

The conversation took an unexpected turn when Kazlas explained the sacrament to the mother.

“On the way out the door, she started crying. I stopped and hugged her and asked her what was wrong. She asked me, ‘If God can forgive my daughter’s sins, do you think he could forgive mine, too?’

“I felt like crying with her. ‘Of course he can,’ I told her. We talked and then I realized that what we do in the prison has ripple effects with the families of the inmates, too. God is at work in their lives in ways that we aren’t even aware of.”

‘They’re still God’s children’

The razor wires stretching across the prison walls and fences initially filled Deacon Steve Gretencord with fear and uncertainty.

So did the thought of doing prison ministry among men who have been convicted of federal crimes that include murder, gun running and the manufacture and distribution of drugs.

Then came the experience that unsettled the deacon for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis during one of the Communion services he leads every Thursday—alternating at the United States Penitentiary and the Federal Correctional Institution, both in Terre Haute.

“The very first time it happened, it caught me off guard,” says Deacon Gretencord. “I was giving a homily and someone said, ‘I don’t understand what you just said.’ Especially the men on death row, they’ll seek information right then. At first, it caught me off guard. Now, I take it as a compliment. They are paying attention. They ask questions. They want to learn.”

That glimmer of interest has developed into a deeper connection in the nearly three years of Deacon Gretencord’s ministry at the prisons.

“I am always struck, each and every time, when they receive the Eucharist, and they go back and kneel on the concrete,” he says. “When I see them bow their heads, I know Jesus is there.

“Or when they come to me and quietly talk about their children or some problem they’re having at home and I see a tear running down their cheek. I know that they trust me because they can’t let their guard down anywhere else there. If they did, they would be marked as weak, and the weak are preyed upon by the strong.”

While his fear has faded, the 62-year-old deacon always maintains an awareness of his surroundings during his prison visits.

“Things can happen,” he says.

Good things happen, too, including the two times Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has joined Deacon Gretencord to celebrate Mass for the prisoners.

“The inmates still talk about it,” says the deacon, who also ministers at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Terre Haute. “It meant that much to them. And it showed me he understands I’m doing something worthwhile. I found out how much he cares about all the people in the archdiocese, whether they are in a parish or incarcerated.”

After a pause, Deacon Gretencord adds, “Everyone wants to be tough on crime, and I understand that. But they’re human beings. We put them behind the concrete and the razor wire, and we forget about them. I know they have a debt to pay, but they’re still God’s children.

“I remember this one gentleman was very distant, very hard in his heart. Over the course of a few months before he transferred out, I saw him change. He would participate in the Communion service. He would sing. He would read one of the readings. When he left, I gave him a parting blessing. He shook my hand, thanked me and told me he would continue going to services after he transferred.”

Moments like that one help explain why Deacon Gretencord considers his prison ministry “one of the most fulfilling things I’ve ever done.”

“When I walk out, I know I’ve made a difference in somebody’s life. You can’t experience that and not be changed. When I bring the Eucharist to these men, I’m doing something very special in their lives. It’s humbling.”

‘What’s God asking me to do?’

In a moment, Robert Mariacher will explain how chocolate chip cookies and rice paper can help to change the life and the faith of men in jail.

Yet right now, the 75-year-old Mariacher is explaining how his involvement in prison ministry at the Plainfield Correctional Facility has changed his life.

“I really got into it when I retired at 62,” he says. “I was at a point where I was trying to put my life in order and thinking about, ‘What’s God asking me to do?’ ”

Part of the answer came when he considered Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 25: “For I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

“When you get to ‘visit the imprisoned,’ not many people are doing it or want to do it,” says Mariacher, a member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. “I wanted to go where there was the least amount of people involved.

“It has helped me see things I wouldn’t have seen. And it’s helped me become a better Christian.”

The father of four and the grandfather of 12 also has another reason for visiting and helping men in jail.

“As you look back on your life, you recall situations where you could have been arrested,” he says. “The difference is that some of us are caught and others aren’t. Most of the men in our group can look back and say, ‘I could have been arrested, but I wasn’t.’ ”

Mariacher is a volunteer with Kairos Ministry, a national, ecumenical effort that tries to bring Christ into the lives of people in prison—all in the goal of “changing hearts, transforming lives, impacting the world.”

The Kairos program begins with a weekend retreat in the facility where volunteers are matched one-on-one with about 40 prisoners at a time. During the retreats, chocolate chip cookies and rice paper serve as intriguing ways to help the men in prison learn potentially life-changing values.

“One of the main points of the weekend is forgiveness,” Mariacher notes. “It’s the thought, ‘You will be forgiven as you forgive others.’ There’s a point where the prisoner has to forgive even the person who may be responsible for them going to prison. They write down these names on a piece of rice paper. They put these pieces of rice paper in a bowl of water and the rice paper dissolves.”

That symbolic lesson in forgiveness is extended through the hundreds of chocolate chip cookies that volunteers bake for the weekend retreats.

“Once they go through the forgiving process, they take a bag of cookies and go to someone in the prison who has offended them,” Mariacher says. “They go up to them, give them the cookies and say, ‘I’m giving you these cookies as a sign of forgiveness and wanting to improve our relationship.’ ”

Mariacher acknowledges that it’s a challenge in humility to offer a bag of cookies as a peace token in a prison where most of the 1,500 men have been jailed for theft, battery and drug-related crimes. Still, he has seen how the impact of the weekend—and the follow-up sessions—has changed the hearts of some of the toughest men he has met.

“One was a motorcycle guy,” he says. “He shot, point-blank, a boyfriend of his ex-wife for molesting his daughter. He shot him dead. Then he had a heart problem. He was in the operating room, near death. His heart had stopped, but the surgeon didn’t give up on him. After the surgery, the surgeon asked him, ‘Do you believe in God?’

“He turned his life around even though he’s still in prison. Christ changes lives. There’s never a situation where God won’t forgive you.” †

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