Ink Slingers Mary S. You Did It To Me

You did it to me: Visit the Prisoner

Welcome to the series “You did it to me” where we will be discussing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. This will be a twice a month series from March to September 2015. We hope you enjoy!

11021044_1457331471223989_325798669104677386_nA day after I agreed to write about this topic, I thought about it for a minute and part of my brain went “wait, what did I sign up for?!? What am I going to write about?” The closest I’ve ever come to visiting someone in prison was when I toured the local police station with my Moms club and got a picture of my two kids chilling with some friends in the cell there. My husband and I have talked about someone we know who regularly does prison ministry, but have never really considered doing it ourselves. So as I considered what to write, it was from a position of essentially zero experience or knowledge about actually visiting prisoners.

(yes, I know there are other ways of interpreting “the imprisoned” as meaning those imprisoned at home by infirmity, in their own minds by mental illness, or in a poor situation of life, for example. I also know that, depending on where you find a list of the Works of Mercy, sometimes this one is listed as “Free the Captives,” including the image made for this post by our awesome graphics gal! But I’ve always learned it as “Visit the Imprisoned”, and wanted to approach it from a more literal viewpoint of actual prisoners. Disclaimer over.)

I don't think this visit qualifies me to pontificate about visiting prisoners!!
I don’t think this visit qualifies me to pontificate about visiting prisoners!!

But then one day, right in the middle of Mass (far from pondering this post, I was focused on the fact my nephew was about to receive his First Communion!), some thoughts and ideas just hit me, and I admit I grabbed pen and paper from my purse and jotted down a few thoughts during the homily.

As I mentioned, my husband and I have discussed prison ministry several times, and most of the time our conversation only serves to illustrate the two main approaches to the imprisoned. The interior conflict I feel when I consider helping with prison ministry is really a struggle between these two “sides”:

  1. the very human urge to decide that these people did something terrible to deserve being placed in prison, and it doesn’t serve Justice well to seek them out to minister to, making their sentence even that small bit easier to bear. Especially when there are others in difficult situations, pointedly not due to their own actions and choices, who seem like much more worthy subjects of my concern and assistance.

  2. The knowledge that Christ would have given his life for even the basest of criminals, in hopes that that person would one day be in Heaven. God’s mercy overflows, and the whole point of mercy is that it is something we don’t deserve. Even when someone has made terrible choices and hurt others, the fact that Christ loves them enough to lay down his very life for them ought to move me to be willing to lay down our desire for Justice and even vengeance, and minister to these souls. And I do want to be a pathway for His mercy to reach anyone and everyone.

It can be so difficult to balance Justice and Mercy, especially when we read stories of people who were given a merciful early release from prison who then went on to hurt more people and land back in prison. Or when we see some people who are strongly called to prison ministry seeming to argue that if an individual repents and turns his life over to God, that perhaps his civil penalties ought to be lessened. It is natural to want a full and tough punishment (or vengeance) for the perpetrator when we hear about horrible crimes against children or the defenseless, and it is so difficult to get past that to the point of being able to offer them even the tiny mercies of a kind word or a smile, let alone the great graces and mercy God offers us all.

I could quote bible verses about vengeance being God’s, or about his Justice and Mercy. I could cite passage from the Catechism about how prisoners should be treated, or the value of every human being. Several ideas such as those came to me that day in Church, and I had several possible posts half-written in my head to choose from. But the final thought that hit me that day erased them all. Because I realized I had been lost. And not lost in any major way, but simply at a loss as to what to write for a blog post. Not exactly earth-shaking, and I had volunteered for it, after all. But God cared. He cared that I was afraid of looking foolish, and he helped me see several ways to intelligently and thoughtfully approach the topic.

He had Mercy on me.

And while I intellectually realize it is a tiny action of Mercy compared to the fact that he offers forgiveness for all my sinfs and eternal Joy in Heaven, this tiny Mercy was easier to wrap my brain around. And it dawned on me that visiting a prisoner was a similarly tiny act of Mercy. Prison ministry doesn’t require a laying down of my life, but perhaps only a few hours of time and a willingness to simply be a conduit for God’s love. It doesn’t mean breaking out that murderer or drug dealer or convincing myself or others that they are good men, but offering them the knowledge of the amazing invitation God offers to each of us, to be His. Helping them to find that greater freedom that God wants for every one of us.11008560_1457331431223993_4168276712896781398_n

How selfish of me to keep that to myself when we have been given so much Mercy, even to cover such minor needs as what to write in a post. While it is human to want Justice and punishment, God’s grace and Mercy can and should flow through us to others, regardless of whether we believe a person deserves even a kind word. And as the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy are really all about sharing God’s Mercy with our fellow man (even though none of us deserve it), we must strive to offer that Mercy most especially with those who least deserve it.

Will I be joining the prison ministry in our area?? Probably not. I have other ministries that I feel much more called to. But I am much more open to it now, and have added prisoners and prison ministers to my daily prayer list. Even if it is only in context of a discussion with a friend or loved one, it always helps me to realize that I deserve death for my sin, but have received God’s Mercy. And that now I have a responsibility to offer that same Mercy to others.

What about you? Have you ever visited (or freed!) a prisoner?? What was it like? Do you agree with my thoughts on it??

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The Best Little Charity You Never Knew

streetwalkingbookTwo weeks ago, I picked up a magazine off our parish’s literature rack and thumbed through it. Halfway through, I saw an article about Emmaus Ministries (, a Chicago-based outreach that ministers to male prostitutes who work the streets. I was intrigued, so I went online and read up on the ministry and even purchased the book, Streetwalking with Jesus: Reaching Out in Justice and Mercy by the group’s founder, John Green, a Catholic deacon who now lives in Ohio with his wife and children.

The 200-page book arrived about four days ago and I’m already done. This is no small feat for a homeschooling mother of five kids, including a toddler! What makes Green’s book so compelling is that in sharing the heartrending and inspiring stories of the men prostituting themselves on the streets (who sometimes recover), he ends each chapter with a series of questions that will challenge you to go deeper in your love of God and neighbor.

And boy do those questions rake across your soul. In the very first chapter, Green tells the story of Jim, a prostitute who was charged (and acquitted) of murdering his “sugar daddy”–the older man who offered him shelter, safety, and financial resources in return for sexual favors. Green asks if it’s difficult for us to see someone like Jim “clothed with glory and honor.” Fair enough. But then he asks, “What about the sugar daddy?”

I realized that while Jim’s life story only engendered compassion in me–he was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and beaten by his mother’s boyfriend until he was brain damaged–I found it far harder to feel anything but loathing toward the older, wealthy man who had preyed upon him. Yet as Green points out, relationships between young prostitutes and their sugar daddies “often entail real needs that the two men are trying to meet. The sugar daddy has a nurturing, parental need to give; the hustler craves to be loved.” I wanted to relegate to the older man to the role of “disgusting predator” and dismiss him, but in truth he is just as broken and spiritually impoverished as the prostitute he manipulates.

It reminded me of Corrie and Betsy Ten Boom. While in a concentration camp during World War II, the sisters witnessed a guard savagely beating a young woman. Corrie said, “How terrible!” Betsy said, “I know! We have to show her that love is the better way.” Unlike Corrie, Betsy considered the person exhibiting the lack of love as an even greater victim than the person being abused.

What an incredible thing, to be able to see both the victim and his abuser as a wounded, yet still loved child of God, as Green and the Emmaus staff does. I know I am rarely capable of this. What about you?

To educate people about the suffering and struggles of male prostitutes, Emmaus has a one-hour dramatic presentation that brings the stories of the men to life. The production can be performed at parishes, for groups, or for charitable organizations…anyone who needs help seeing the inherent dignity of these “lost sons” of God.

emmausOn both the Emmaus website and in the book, these Christians challenge the rest of us to let go of our “learned blindness.” That’s the comfortable life that enables us to remain separated–physically and spiritually–from the poor and poor in spirit. Green says, “The degree to which I am blessed staggers me. The degree to which I take that for granted shames me.” He describes spending a weekend camping with three male prostitutes outside the city, then returning home and dropping them off at “the spot”–a smattering of cardboard boxes sitting over a steam grate where the men lived, if you can call that living. Green went home, got into his comfortable bed in his warm apartment, and wept for the suffering of his brothers.

How often do we remember to thank God humbly for our many blessings? And as importantly, are we willing to sacrifice some of those blessings to alleviate the suffering of those in need?

If we have anything, Green says–material comfort or intellectual talents or spiritual clarity–every bit of it is a gift from God. A gift given for one purpose–to serve others in love. It’s clear that this is a ministry that doesn’t reach out to those on the streets through self-righteousness or Pharisaic condescension, but through a sincere and humble love of their brothers. This is the kind of love we’re called to offer every person we meet–gay or straight, rich or poor, law-abiding or criminal, young or old.

May God help us to love Him better by loving others better. “Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Me.”

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Of Ministries, Apostolates and, Crop Rotations?

What a WEIRD title, you might be thinking! Why, praytel, are ministries and crop rotations involved in the same sentence? Are crop rotations even Catholic?

Let me back up a minute and tell you that I have been wanting to write on this very topic for some time now – but the reason I haven’t been able to until now has been due to a lack of time. I quite literally had no time to write. See, I wait for the Holy Spirit to clear my plate so I can bring on new projects. The last two years of my time on the pastoral council {full term of three years} was spent as chair person. I discerned for a full year before I was able to even see if it was the will of the Spirit that I join the Council. And, as it turned out, it was. I scaled back my other ministries and projects so that I could devote my time entirely to whatever service Father Dean required of the council…or me, specifically. When the outgoing chair person mentioned me as a possible candidate a month before discernment at the end of year one, I had FIVE kids, one still an infant. The thought of doing anything in a leadership position scared the snot out of me. Maybe literally, I think I blacked out when he mentioned nominating me.

After the initial wave of panic, paranoia and nausea settled, I got reallllly casual with the Holy Spirit and said “hey, if YOU want this to happen, You’ve got a lot of work to do on my heart cuz I sure don’t feel like the right candidate!” Let me just mention that I have since learned not to challenge the Holy Spirit because He has the exact same kind of humor as God the Father. No big surprise there.

I accepted the idea of being nominated as chair person and just kept my head down and moved forward. It was a lot of work, but a ministry I thoroughly enjoyed. I spent most months meeting with our priest outside of council meetings to go over agendas, ideas for guest speakers, lots of e-mails and phone calls, scheduling and booking retreat locations, coming up with the agenda for the retreat, asking for help everywhere, and getting to know MANY parishioners, as well as the staff. By the end of my term, three years had passed, and two more members joined our family, #5 and #6. SHEW.


Prior to discernment, I was pretty heavily involved in parish ministries and activities. Bible Study on Tuesdays, Pastor’s Talks on Thursdays, facilitating for RCIA on Mondays, joining and helping out with our then newly formed MOMs group.

By God’s design, always, I was introduced to our Faith Formation director Noe Rocha in the summer of 2006 when I attended a series of apologetics classes. Over the years we have had many conversations, and I always felt the Holy Spirit was talking through him. I remember he mentioned once, roughly paraphrased, how people go headlong into ministries, joining everything under the sun. Not surprisingly, I think to myself, this unbalanced use of time creates an undue burden in the home, causing a fire on the home front. His approach was quite simple. You start with service to family {Jerusalem}, then to your community {Judea and Samaria} and then the rest of the world. In that order. Always. If not, your spiritual alignment gets out of whack…and hooweeee, will it ever if you try to go to the ends of the earth first and ignore the home.

Our first witness is to our family – they are our oxygen mask. How can we reasonably expect to help others when our own spiritual house is in ruin or near collapse? It’s important to understand that God will not call us to do anything that puts our family at risk…even if we think a volunteer, service, ministering opportunity seems like a good idea. Volunteering, ministering, serving-these are good things, but when we are doing them at the spiritual cost of our own Jerusalem, it’s time to go inward and work on the list, placing these first in our life and starting at the top:


Spouse {if applicable}/religious life.

Children {natural or spiritual}. 


You might be thinking to yourself, what about me? Where do I fit into the equation? God? Check. My spouse? Check. Children? Check. What if I am the one in need of oxygen? How can I spiritually provide for my family? Ah, you see, you answered the question of whether you should be involved in ministries to begin with! If your spiritual life is in crisis, then that undoubtedly needs to be addressed FIRST. Prayer, confession, frequenting use of the sacraments, especially Mass, at minimum Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, but daily Mass as well. Seeking out support with fellow Catholics can be helpful, too. Look to friends to be inspired to do better with your spiritual life. Look to them for inspiration, not comparison. It’s important to not get the two confused. So, if you are taking care of yourself spiritually and in service to others, you will start to see the fruits of your labor. Notice I never say that your life will be devoid of drama and that it’ll all be lollipops and rainbows. I’m just saying God will equip you with the spiritual armor you need to get through the inevitable life drama.


So, we’ve covered the basics of ministries and the importance of caring for the home front first. Assuming all is in order at home, and your house is not on fire, you’ve now got the makings to step foot just outside of Jerusalem. You’re involved in a few ministries at church, but you are BURNED OUT. Ministries are like crop rotations. Crop rotations structure planting so that the soil remains fertile, yielding the most abundant crops. Since methods vary, I’ll share the nutshell version. You grow several different types of crops in the same area, rotating the area they grow from season to season. By doing this, it improves soil structure and fertility by utilizing the differing crops each year. Some farmers choose to leave one field alone to reestablish nutrients which, in turn, increases the life of the soil.

Let’s apply the idea of crop rotation to ourselves from a ministry standpoint.

Example: I join a ministry – let’s call it “The Super Fabulous Every Church Needs This Kind of Ministry in Order to Thrive” ministry. Or TSFECNTKOMIOTT. The ministry is ON-FI-YAH and the t-shirts prove it! I am pumped and, like a glove, this ministry fits all of my talents. I decide to join other ministries, too. Like Lays potato chips, I can’t just have one. I sing in the choir, lector on alternating Sundays and I’m currently discerning whether I should be an Extraordinary Eucharistic Minister. I was also humbled to be asked to start running Bible study. Of course I couldn’t say no. In addition to all that, I am on several committees and leading the charge on a project.  Before I know it, I find myself run down and out of steam. I never saw it coming. Now, from the outside, it could be a possible case of  “I can’t say no” syndrome, and in that case, I need to take time to learn to make my yes’s mean yes and my no’s mean no.

Consider participating in one or two ministries at a time…and only for a time. Ministries, like crops, have a season…a shelf life, if you will. And there is nothing to feel guilty about when it’s time to prayerfully discern your way out of one ministry and into another…or perhaps no ministry next. It all has a place, if we are always listening to His plan for us in service to Him.


Back to Noe. Between our conversations over the years and my listening to him teach our Adult Faith Formation program for three years, or six semesters, I have learned there are two kinds of ministries: 1) you give, and 2) you receive. I have tried to adopt the one for me, and one in service to others approach and that has always worked for me. Like anything else, this is a constant process, as life will dictate circumstances and your ability to participate in various ministries. Don’t be afraid to ease up or leave a ministry altogether, even IF you were the one to create it. If it is meant to thrive, it will thrive without you – as hard as that is to believe, our emotional attachment to programs and ministries should never cloud our desire to be in service to God first. So, try some new ministries out, ease out of others, and like the crop rotations, it can even be good to take time away from ministries altogether to explore other prayerful pursuits.

Now it’s your turn to sound off. Share in the comboxes some of your experience or tips for others when it comes to ministries and avoiding burnout. I look forward to hearing what you come up with. Until next time, friends!