The night before I first visited SCI Graterford, I had a pit in my stomach. I was wrestling with feelings of fear and discomfort, and told myself that it was too late to back out for this semester, but taking students to visit the prison would be a one-semester thing only. Soon enough, I came to realize the time I spent inside the walls of SCI Graterford was important for my own ideas of justice, as well as for my ideas about God.
I was a theology graduate student at Villanova, and I spent a lot of time wrestling with how to put theology into action through ministry. I was working primarily with undergraduate students and accompanying them through their first years in college, and visiting Graterford was an extra ministry that I picked up during my second semester.
As I have learned so many times, the space outside of the comfort zone is where the real growth and learning happens. I came to look forward to my visits to Graterford, where I spent time tutoring and having deep, meaningful conversations about faith, reconciliation, justice, and the Philadelphia Eagles.
I was astounded by the faith of the men I met, whose deep belief in a loving God gave them strength to persevere through their incarceration. We had many interfaith conversations about reconciliation and justice, which informed my graduate work immensely.
Each week as we left the prison, we crossed a line of demarcation, the point no “inmate” was allowed to pass. I couldn’t help but feel frustrated that I could freely go back outside the walls, but the men I had come to know could not. I got angry about wasted potential, that these gifted and talented humans had been seemingly thrown away by a world that didn’t care about them.
During Lent, I had been talking with an Augustinian Friar about feeling disconnected from God during a holy season I usually looked forward to. He encouraged me to ask God to open my eyes to God’s presence in my world, and the next day, at my weekly visit to Graterford, my prayer was answered so clearly. On our way out, the usually bustling hallway was empty except for one man, accompanied by several officers, in chains at the wrists and ankles. The look on his face was one of quiet determination mixed with sadness and fear. I was so struck by this image of Jesus on his way to the cross- a man who was incarcerated and eventually killed by the state.
This broke open for me the idea that Jesus had a living, breathing, incarcerated body, and therefore there are implications for Christians about how we are called to minister to those who our society has thrown away, and what reconciliation and forgiveness mean. Many of the conversations I had at Graterford were with men who knew they are loved and forgiven by a compassionate God.
Needless to say, that promise to myself of visiting Graterford for one semester only was broken almost immediately, as I felt called to return each semester that followed. My experiences at Graterford informed my ministry style and my faith, as I try to be the face of the compassionate, loving God that I met at Graterford to those I encounter, as well as to myself.
The above reflection was written by Julia Tully. She studied Theology and Ministry at Villanova University. She is currently the Director of Campus Ministry at The Academy of Notre Dame de Namur.
Join CPMC on December 1st for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, a virtual conference to gather ministers, volunteers, and supporters of prison, jail, reentry, and detention ministries. Come listen to others’ stories of transformational ministry, rooted in compassion and the Gosepl call to accompany others. Featuring Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, Bp. Bill Wack, CSC, and other leaders, participants will find inspiration and meaningful opportunities to grow in their ministry and support others doing this important work.