Behind the Cinder Blocks…

Behind the Cinder Blocks, jail, ministry, corporal works of mercy,

A few months ago, I joined a program in my city called the Rosary Project through one of the parishes I serve at. It’s a service where all volunteers visit the Edmonton Remand Centre once a month to pray the Holy Rosary with the inmates. Initially, I was under the impression that I would be be praying with the inmates through a screen of some sort.

Imagine the look on my face when I walked into the pod for the first time to see an ocean of orange bustling around. The guard announced that the Rosary would begin right away for those who wanted to join, and I wasn’t expecting to see more than 5 people walk into the program room. The room filled up quickly, and men were sitting on the floor because there were not enough chairs. There were many from different, or no-faith backgrounds. We had men who knew nothing about Jesus, and men who recited stories from the Bible with clarity.

Before praying, we ask for every person’s intentions. Many men asked to pray for their fellow brothers and sisters in prison, but I was particularly touched when one older gentleman, who had been at the centre for a long time, said he wanted to pray for us, the volunteers.

Interestingly, I was told by one of the men that I shared the name of his daughter. This happened not once, but on two different occasions by different men. It was spooky since I never considered my name to be all that popular, yet it was sobering. I could see that these men were fathers that made real sacrifices, and were carrying a real penance. It struck me even more deeply that one of those men could have been my own father, telling a complete stranger that his daughter’s name was Alyssa.

From my experience so far I realize just how intentional the Rosary Project is. Spending up to years at a time locked away from your loved ones, with your freedom taken from you is a kind of rock-bottom I can’t even begin to understand. Deacon Joseph prefaces the project as a way of visiting those who cannot come to visit us at church.

I recall the verse in Matthew 25,

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

~Matthew 25: 34-40~

I was in prison and you came to visit me.

We are simply called to serve those in prison by visiting them — no more and no less.  I can understand now why Mother Teresa had such a fervent longing to serve those who were vulnerable, undesirable and outcasted in society. Touching those people with her heart was how she encountered Jesus; how she was able to see His face. These people are our brothers and sisters, and we can not turn our backs on them, despite everything that they’ve done.

I am aware that I am walking into a world that is unfamiliar to me, and I am surrounded by people that come from backgrounds of violence, substance abuse, and a great lack of love. But I am surrounded. These people have the humility to walk into this room and recite five decades of our Holy Mother’s prayer with us. I can’t ask for a greater miracle. What a privilege it is for me to encounter that. Deacon Joseph said it to the men we were praying with in such a beautiful way: “When I hear us praying together in rhythm in this room, it sounds and feels almost identical to when I am praying the Rosary with my brothers in the clergy.” Prayer ties all voices together in unison, forming a brotherhood that is powerful and unbreakable.

It’s incredible how quickly the Holy Spirit works – the tiny, single-decade rosary beads we hand out afterwards are received with careful and appreciative hands. For many, it’s the pocketful of light that they will need to face another day inside of those cinder block walls.

As we all move into this Lenten season, I encourage us all to simply visit.

Find a way to visit:

Your local correctional facility through your parish.

A senior’s home.

A shelter.

A food bank and spend time with those doing the Lord’s work in the most basic of ways.

Your parents who may live miles away.

Your neighbor whose dogs might be loud sometimes. Invite the young couple with a newborn at church over for dinner.

Kingdom work starts with a simple visit.

Read more about the Corporal Works of Mercy

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