In prison, the mystery of the cross is often portrayed with an image of three crosses. The image is a reminder to prisoners that Christ was not the only one executed on Good Friday and that Christ was one of them. Luke’s gospel tells of two unnamed criminals. The first reviled Jesus and mocked him. The second criminal, however, rebuked the first and offered words of consolation.
In scripture, those who are unnamed are often proxies for us. Here, one criminal was unable to see Christ in the man on the cross nearby. The other repents by confirming his own just condemnation and asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
The unnamed criminals lay out two choices available to us. One path is a path of spiritual blindness; a path where we fail to see Christ in the prisoner. The other is a path of conversion on a journey from darkness to light.
It is fair for us to ask ourselves, with unflinching honesty, “Which path shall I choose?”
If you choose not to encounter those in prison, it is fair to ask, again with unflinching honesty, “What am I afraid of?” You may find your fears to be unfounded. In our pen pal program, they never learn your real name or your address. You are safe.
Fear is one of Satan’s weapons that keep us from loving our neighbor. The cure for fear is faith. If fear is holding you back, ask for more faith. There is a verse:
Fear knocked at the door.
There was no one there.
If the hour has arrived for you to visit Christ in prison you can visit him without ever stepping inside a prison. In this season of social distancing you can serve Christ by writing letters to a prisoner.
It is safe. It is easy. By simply sending a letter each month to someone in prison, you can help transform prisons from dungeons of despair to cathedrals of hope. You have an opportunity to make a difference to those forgotten people inside the walls. What you do for the least of our brethren, you do for Christ.
How are our letters received by prisoners? In the words of Gilbert, “I sincerely appreciate all your mail and thank you for showing me agape love. It is rare that I get mail and thank you from the bottom of my heart.” Gilbert gave me a long list of prayer requests. His last request- more Catholic volunteers in the prisons!
Most of us dream about making a difference in someone else’s life. From Pam to her pal, Margo: “Today I am officially drug free. My daughter just sent me this pic. (I omitted) My heart fluttered. God is blessing me in so many ways, most of all with my family. I’m so deeply grateful that I’m not where I used to be. Thank you for all you have done. I’m also very grateful to have you as my friend.”
Volunteers often discover that their pal’s letters make a difference in their lives. Prison letters can be a starting point for conversations about choices, consequences, loneliness, forgiveness, justice, mercy, and redemption. Our conversations about their letters gently change our hearts.
I always try to close my letters by putting forth one of my prayer needs. I can show no higher recognition of dignity and respect for my pals than asking for their prayers.
Currently, we have about 200 men in prison waiting for a pal. Do you dare to make a difference? Find out how to be a pen pal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Douglas A. SandvigOrder of Malta
North American Prison Ministry Apostolate