In the CPMC Jail and Prison Ministry 101 series, during the first session Father George Williams, S.J., chaplain at San Quentin, reminds us that we have to have a way of making an account to those who ask us why we do this work. The prisoners too, have a right to know: What’s the reason for our hope?
We are called to answer these questions in a climate similar to that of a battleground. We do what we do in an environment of punishment and deprivation that continually, whether intentionally or not, conveys to the incarcerate the opposite message of the Gospel. It’s really the message of the Antichrist. It’s a message of hopelessness, despair, revenge, division and loneliness. So, our work as prison ministers and jail ministers brings us into contact with the reality of the Incarnation. Therefore, we need to be able to talk about God’s grace, love and mercy and forgiveness in our own words, in a coherent, simple way.
Father George emphasized that this is the power of many evangelical Christians in prisons. They have a simple elevator speech in terms of what the gospel means. They’ve memorized it, they believe it, and they live it. And it’s very effective. Father George challenges us to remember that Catholics can do that too! In fact, we have a much richer tradition to draw from, but we need to be able to draw from it and articulate it in a way that makes sense to prisoners.
In addition to being able to explain our own hope, we need to be equipped to look for the hidden hope already present among the prisoners. Greg Mellor, in his recent blog, also made that clear. The two presenters in the Prison Ministries 101 series remind us again and again that we are not bringing God into the prison. God’s already there. God’s already in these men and women. Our role is to walk with them in that discovery.
So, the challenge that Father George gives us is: “Do you know what hope looks like? Can you describe it to prisoners in your own words? Remember, this is not a ministry of words and ideas. It’s a ministry of presence. It’s a ministry of being present in the raw human suffering, dirtiness, smells, and messiness of prison. So, do you know how to stand before people who are suffering in these situations and listen to them and not try to fix them.”
If you haven’t had the chance to review the Prison Ministry 101 series, I highly recommend you do so. It’s filled with practical and inspiring food for our reflection. The National Association of Catholic Chaplains has been working with the CPMC to create resources to accompany the series to help those of us in the ministry to deepen our understanding of our call.