April 7, 2017

Prison ministry effort in archdiocese provides hope, help and possible redemption to young man in jail

By John Shaughnessy

Second in an occasional series

John CordThe young man’s story stunned John Cord.

Cord heard the story as he visited the 24-year-old man in an Indiana state prison.

“He was born to a drug addict and a prostitute, and he never knew his father,” says Cord, a member of St. Ambrose Parish in Seymour. “All his mother ever taught him was to sell drugs. By the time he was 11, his mother committed suicide, leaving him to care for his two younger sisters. And he got a girl pregnant when he was 13.”

Cord sighs and adds, “His whole life he either sold drugs or was in prison. He said he never heard the word ‘Jesus’ unless it was taken in vain. And he never had anyone tell him, ‘I love you.’ ”

It’s a story that seems devoid of hope until Cord shares the change he has seen during the time he has visited the young man.

“He now attends Bible study, he goes to the church services every week, and he’s trying to focus on changing the lifestyle he had,” Cord says.

That transition to hope and possible redemption for inmates is at the heart of an archdiocesan plan to help parishes, individuals and the archdiocese itself make an even deeper commitment to prison ministry this year.

While it’s a plan that Cord helped to develop as a member of an archdiocesan task force on prison ministry, he admits that this effort “was the last ministry I wanted to do.”

Looking beyond the fear

Cord’s involvement in working with people in jail started more than three years ago—at the beginning of his formation to become a deacon for the archdiocese. Indeed, several deacons in the archdiocese are intensely involved in prison ministry.

“Deacon Mike East [the archdiocesan director of deacons] said he wanted me to do it,” recalls Cord, who will be ordained as a deacon on June 24. “I told him it was the last ministry I wanted to do. I could see myself doing hospital ministry or outreach ministry. But as you go through formation, you’re supposed to stretch yourself.”

Cord doesn’t sugarcoat how hard that stretching was at first.

“I had never spent any time in a jail or prison, so it seemed like a scary thing to do,” he recalls. “It’s fear of the unknown. You don’t know what’s on the other side of the wall, and you hear all the things which go on in prison—which are all true.”

Yet once Cord looked beyond his fear, he gained a different perspective.

“In the big picture, some major societal problems become really evident when you go into a jail or prison. The people there get into a lifestyle that’s hard for them to get out of. We see the same men and women come back over and over again. We ask them why they’re back. And they say they’ve never been taught anything but to steal or sell drugs. It’s a generational thing, from their parents and guardians—if anyone raised them at all.

“Most of us don’t have a concept of what that portion of our society endures. It led me to do some research. The grand majority of them dropped out of high school. A lot of them can’t read or write. When they do get out of jail, they can’t get a job. Or if they do get one, it’s one of the lowest paying jobs you can

imagine—because no one wants to hire them after they’ve been in jail.”

The task force’s final report also revealed 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.”

‘We need to have compassion’

Within the task force, Cord’s group focused on building relationships that will help people as they re-enter society after being imprisoned.

Key elements of this goal include training potential mentors to help during this transition, and establishing connections with parishes and the St. Vincent de Paul Society to provide material needs to assist people during this time.

Another emphasis involves working with companies and programs to provide support and employment opportunities.

“I think every county jail needs to have some Catholic presence in it,” Cord says. “The presence could be people going into the jail, or helping those in jail when they get out. It could also be through prayer or financial support or making rosaries. I have invited 15 people to the jail service with me at the Jackson County Jail. Even if they go just one time, it noticeably changes them in terms of compassion.”

It has definitely changed him.

“One of the things this will bring to my ministry as a deacon is a change in the way I look at the marginalized in our society, not just those in prison. The people in the margins don’t have a choice. They haven’t had guidance or leadership. We need to have compassion for them.”

Cord’s commitment to prison ministry also leads him to a moment of self‑awareness—and a light laugh.

“Clearly Deacon Mike knew what he was doing when he had me do what I wanted to do the least. That’s when you grow the most.”

(For more information about how to get involved in prison ministry in the archdiocese, visit the website, www.archindy.org/prison. Interested persons can also contact Deacon Michael Braun, the archdiocese’s director of the Office of Pastoral Ministries. He can be reached 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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