The Impact of a Prison Minister

The Impact of a Prison Minister

I was asked to write about a person who was a great influence in my life, so much so that this person is on my mind every day– still– nearly two years after she passed.

I met Ariel in Catholic Bible Study in prison. Before I talk about Ariel, I think it is important I give you some background information about myself. In 2013, I was convicted of a crime in the state of Oregon called ‘thief by deception,’ and as I know and understand the law, I was guilty. I had never been in the back seat of a police car until this happened to me. After the trial I was pulled out of all the lives of everyone that I cared about. I had betrayed the trust of everyone I knew; my three children, my ex-wife, friends, family, my partners, and bankers. I got up one morning, kissed my kids, left for work, and did not come back for 47 months. My incarceration was much harder on everyone I cared about and loved. People had to deal with the fallout from my mistakes. I feel a lot of deep guilt over putting them through it.

Stick with me– you need to know how much I needed Ariel in my life. She was heaven-sent.

After 4-5 weeks in county jail, I was sent to a minimum security prison in Medford, Oregon. It took a few weeks, but I started to acclimate to my new life. In the beginning I made no friends and I didn’t fit in. Actually, the only real, true friend I made was Ariel.

One of the first things I realized was that God, in whatever and in every form, was everywhere. This really shocked me. I was in a dorm with 112 men, and if I woke up around 4 am I would see many inmates reading the Bible or doing private Bible studies, practicing their faith in their own way. Some of the hardest guys on the yard started every morning connecting with God. There were so many ways of connecting with God; it was a real eye opener. Christian, Buddhist, LDS, Protestant, Catholic, and Christian, they were all there in one form or another. I was late to the Catholic faith, but as I started acclimating, I decided on a plan. A plan of how I was going to get through the next five years. I was going to do some college, stay active, and get involved in anything that was offered. And most importantly, I was going to, for the very first time in my life, read the Bible and figure out this ‘God’ and ‘faith’ thing. 

At 50 years old, I am embarrassed to say I had never taken the time to read the most-read book in the world. I started at the beginning, the “Genesis’ if you will… and off I went. After a few days and then weeks, I was more confused than informed. The Bible is a hard read if you don’t have a foundation, and it became very clear to me that I did not. That is, until I met Ariel.

At some point, I was transferred to get closer to my family and soon-to-be ex-wife. I still thought I could fix it– of course I would… I was Catholic now! At the new facility I signed up for Catholic Bible study. I went to the first study and left completely demoralized. The man running it made it seem like an obligation for him. So, the next week I was less than excited to go sit through another hour-and-a-half with him as the instructor. I walked in and saw a very petite woman in all white. She had so much knowledge and so much passion. I was blown away. There seemed to be nothing she didn’t know. I would ask a question and she would say open your Bible to page so and so. And there it was– the answer. She gladly backed it up with the information the Old Testament said was going to happen. I had no idea! I was over-the-top excited. Finally I was going to figure out this Bible thing… Catholic thing… out. I believe that very day I found my faith; I was over 50 years old, and with Ariel’s help, life as I knew it had just changed. I felt I finally had something to ground me, and a foundation to build on.

I can’t even put into words how much I looked forward to seeing her on Wednesday nights and once a month for Mass. At some point, she got involved in the annulment process as my representative and represented me in the Portland Archdiocese. The annulment was something my wife wanted. She was always a terrific advocate for me. Ariel was my guiding light. I spent the next two-plus years waiting for her to come and answer all the questions I had from her assigned homework. She brought books in and challenged me on what insights I had received from reading them. She always knew if I actually read them or not. Bible study was 90-minutes long, and she came so prepared to teach all who would listen. I remember complaining about another person who held the Bible studies the weeks she wasn’t there, and she would have none of that. Ariel challenged me to pick one thing I got from the time I spent with other instructors. “Okay, Curt, what did you learn?” She would come in for Bible study, teach the class, and then allow me to walk her to the gate. At the gate, we would sit on a bench and talk for another hour before she left. To this day, I have no idea why the guards let that happen. It would be considered ‘out of area’, and I very easily could have been sent to the hole.

Prior to me being released, her only grandbaby sadly developed cancer. She expressed the pain she was in with grace. It was invaluable to me that she felt she could talk with me about deep sad issues. A true friendship I have had with very few. It’s been said if you die with five good friends, you have lived a full life; Ariel is in my 5. In fact, she is in the top 3! Very rarely do you meet someone who literally changes the path of your life. I can say with confidence, God put her in my life because he knew I needed her.

By the grace of God and some help from the prison pastor, a few weeks after my release, I finally got permission to visit her and see her on a social level. Now, I’m going to tell you something that will shock you– I had never had a facial in my life. I am not that guy… or…I was not that guy. But I knew this was one of the things she did to make a living. (Side note: to this day, six years later, I get one every 3-4 weeks) Anyway, I called and made an appointment under another name and walked into my appointment and surprised her. It was such a blessing to see her outside of the fence, in her element. I laid on her table and got a facial every 3 weeks for an hour and she would grill me on what I had learned. No, not grill, remind me of the very values she had taught me in the first place. Ariel’s values were this: What was I studying in the Bible? Was I going to mass? Was I tithing? Was I doing my part to make the world a better place? Was I giving back? To this day I am blessed I had her, both for my facials and more importantly as my reminder.

Both my parents died while I was incarcerated, and the correctional system makes it very hard to see someone outside the walls. But, because I had Ariel as an advocate, I was able to say goodbye to my parents on their deathbeds. Ariel turned the whole ODOC upside down to make sure I got there in time. A passing guard asked, “She got you out to see your folks? Who is this person? Who is she to you?” Simple, my very own angel!

One evening she contacted me to tell me I was on the agenda to speak at a prison ministry workshop. Happy, but unprepared, I showed up with no notes and no agenda other than the knowledge that I would have the attention of this audience for twenty minutes. I don’t really remember what I said, but it must have made an impression because when it was over she introduced me to Ron Zeilinger, the founder of Dismas Ministry. Ron asked me if I would consider being on the board of directors for the ministry. Before I could even answer, guess who stepped in and said, “Of course he will!” I don’t think I ever had a chance to reply. As I write this, I just had my last board meeting after six years and being on the board. I can say with all humility it was one of the biggest honors of my life. That ministry has some of the most dedicated, engaged people in the prison ministry field that I have ever seen, and is truly a great place to support. She got me on the board and I feel she knew more about what I needed than I did. She knew what was best for me before I did.

Some place along the line Ariel informed me she had cancer and was receiving therapy. She asked me to keep her in my prayers. We talked about the therapy; she never seemed sick or weak, and I realize now it was because she hid it from me. I never knew how bad it was until one day I showed up for my facial and was informed she was at home under hospice. I was completely caught off guard. I wanted to see her! I wanted to fix it! I was overwhelmed with grief and guilt– Why didn’t I see it? When I finally got to talk to her she told me she didn’t want to see me, and she had reasons why. She scolded me for missing Adoration and told me she would see me in a week or so. That never happened. One of my last conversations with her was her expressing how excited she was to see her granddaughter again. She handled death with such grace, much better than I did. I can say this with 100% guarantee. Not one single day goes by in my life that the five-foot-tall, dressed in all white angel is not in my thoughts. I feel she guides me through my life. When I think about my time behind the fence it’s hard to be bitter or upset. It wrecked a lot of lives, including the lives of many of the people I know and love. But if I hadn’t been where I was, I may not have met the person who saved me from myself and brought me to my faith. Ariel in a very special way changed my path for the better. I am sure she still walks with me to this very day.

Curtis Gibson is a Board Member for the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition.

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