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Alyssa Azul Faith Formation Ink Slingers Lent Liturgical Year Prayer

Behind the Cinder Blocks…

Behind the Cinder Blocks, jail, ministry, corporal works of mercy, www.catholicsistas.com

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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Elle Stone Respect Life Testimonials

Visiting the Imprisoned – An Encounter With An Inmate

Visiting the Imprisoned

Disclaimer: This post is about my correspondence with Dahvie Holmes, with whom I run the blog Housewife // Savagelife (www.housewifesavagelife.com).  This post for Catholic Sistas has been edited for a general audience, including only a brief description of violence. 

Because Housewife // Savagelife shares Dahvie’s unique voice and experience, the blog contains adult content, including violence, sexual content, drugs, and language.  Discretion is advised if you chose to access Housewife // Savagelife.

 

yoooo

I have a friend who’s…different from my other friends. For one, we communicate via letter (basically a medieval undertaking). Second, on the return address where the name should be there’s a number: 20141008200.  Third, when I open this letter, it’s not uncommon to read something like this:

yoooo what’s up Elle? you crazy, man.  I be laughin like a MF whenever I think about this.  I always look at the “other side” (outside of jail) and wonder…how do they think.  How do they kick it?.

My friend’s name is Dahvie Holmes, and he’s an inmate at Cook County Jail.  Over the past year and a half, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know him, attempting to understand his world, and starting a blog with him. Through encountering his experiences and thoughts, I’ve “visited the imprisoned”–which has radically changed my life.

I could get into how we met (a crazy story with a couple of miracles sprinkled in–if you’re curious, you can read it here: https://www.housewifesavagelife.com/blog/2017/6/8/a-housewife-encounters-the-savagelife).  But I want to give Dahvie the stage. 

“I love her to death”

Dahvie doesn’t play pleasantries.  He gives such a raw insight into his life.  He sent me a letter which started with this story:

So I call the house, first my mama was talking to some dcfs (Department of Children and Family Services) agent so she asked me to call back.  That blew me to hear who she was talking to because I already have 2 siblings in foster care.  Well they adopted now but it’s the same thing to me.  They not with they birth family.  I don’t even know them.  Never meet them either.  It’s a sad story.  

Now to hear she talking to the dcfs again while she in custody of my baby sister scares the eff out of me cuz that’s my heart.  I love her to death.  I would never forgive my mother if she loses her.  But the guilt really eats at me because I’m in jail and can’t do a darn thing to help.

It gives me chills to read that.  I can’t help but think about my family.  How heartbreaking would it be to call up your mom and hear that? That your mom was sending one of your siblings into foster care?  And you couldn’t do a thing about it?

A little backstory: Dahvie’s mom is addicted to crack.  She was probably using it while she was pregnant with Dahvie.  Maybe all her kids.  I couldn’t help but to think: wouldn’t foster care be good for his sister to get out of a bad situation?

His response:

My mom isn’t the best parent but at least she has support.  My sister needs to be around family.  Her family not no darn strangers.  SO I believe it isn’t best for her.  But if it was, of course I would want the best then yeah.

The thought of having a sister disappear while your away, into the hands of strangers.  It’s hard to even wrap my head around it. I had reduced Dahvie and his family to equations and statistics.  But in this, I experienced his pain. 

An inmate doesn’t just become a cold representation of his crime. They still encounter devastating heartbreak.  They still encounter brokenness.

“I’m actually numb to it.”

This next letter completely underscored the discrepancy between Dahvie and I.  We live in two completely different worlds. It’s eye-opening and devastating:

To see your homies on the news.  Mama cryin and stuff. It’s a effed up feeling.  I wake up to the deck screamin my name sayin my block on the news.  I jump up to see two brothers was gunned down at the restaurant. Face shots.  Them was my lil bro’s too. Even though we had some differences I still loved them.  It hurt me to found out like this. This war stuff real. 

Another huge emotional knockout.  Knowing those people, and seeing it on the news…I couldn’t imagine.  And I told that to Dahvie, I really could not imagine. I knew exactly zero people who had been shot at. Zero. Zilch.  Nada.

He responded:

It’s everyday life for me.  I’m actually numb to it. It’s weird to me hearin how y’all live.  I believe you know somebody who been shot they just ain’t tell you or embarrassed to admit it.  If you really don’t know someone (besides me) then my life, my cellie life, and everybody around me life really been messed up.  Darn SMH. Darn. That would be so hard to accept.

Dahvie couldn’t even imagine a world where people hadn’t been shot at, where this wasn’t a regular occurrence.  He couldn’t imagine my comfortable suburban life, my violence-free, gang-free existence.

This got me thinking. What if I grew up in a neighborhood where people had been shot at, all my friends had been shot at or were shooters?   How would my life be different? Pope Francis said:

Each one of us is capable of doing the same thing done by that man or woman in jail. All of us are capable of sinning and making the same mistake in life. They are not worse than you and I!

I have not committed a crime which could land me in jail. But I’ve been so guarded from making mistakes like that. Let’s say that I commit sin 30% of the time (I had a tough time coming up with a number so let’s go with that).  That means that three out of ten times I’m turning away from God. 

What if for those mess ups, instead of being in my safe little apartment, I was in a neighborhood like Dahvie’s?  Personal choice is a big part of it, but I personally choose to do all kinds of evils. I haven’t had the same opportunities for evil as Dahvie.

Pope Francis says:

They haven’t had the opportunities that I have had of not doing something stupid and ending up in prison…This makes me cry inside. It is deeply moving.

“I had failed to love that child…”

From the start, Dahvie was vulnerable with me, but I put up walls.  I’m very guarded. It took me months to open up to him, to share with him about my life.  Finally I sent him this:

My period is late.  I think I might be pregnant.  Which, to be honest, I don’t know how I feel about it.  I had a miscarriage a couple of months ago, and that process was tough.  Like, the whole thing from start to finish. 

The pregnancy was a total surprise, and I really struggled to be happy about it.  It just was so not my plan, so much not what I wanted my life to be. I wanted my independence for a little longer.  Which I was ashamed about because I knew that I was being called to love that innocent little life. 

And then, when I had the miscarriage, I was heartbroken, because I had failed to love that child as much as I should have.  I wanted to learn how to love the child (my husband named her “Poppy”), and I lost that shot. Seems like I might have that shot again.

I was in a really broken spot.  I had failed, I was wounded. I needed true rehabilitation in my heart.  Pope Francis underscores the need for rehabilitation, saying some people:

…do this in their own homes and in their own professions. Others, like you, do this in a prison. But all of us, all of us — anyone who says they do not need to go through a process of rehabilitation is a liar.

I needed something that Dahvie knew well.  A process of rehabilitation. A time of focus and change.  I could do this hidden in my home, but he does this behind bars, every day.  Perhaps this is why his response was moving, filled with understanding and care:

I’m confused at your reaction.  I thought you was ready for a football team of kids? Haha you thought you was.  But you was really scared. That’s how it be for everybody who think they ready for a responsibility whole time when the situation present itself we freeze up.  Get nervous. Don’t worry that’s normal. Love always grows so don’t think different. I’m sorry y’all had a miscarriage. God knows best and your chance will come again.

Dahvie gave me something that I had almost given up on.  In my self-loathing and self-pity, I had given up on the chance of change, the chance of things getting better.

Pope Francis says that those in prison: 

…are serving a penalty, a penalty for a mistake committed…But let us not forget that, for punishment to be fruitful, it must have a horizon of hope, otherwise it is enclosed within itself and is only an instrument of torture, it is not fruitful.

God never encloses us in our sin and brokenness.  He always gives us a horizon of hope, a chance at forgiveness and true change.  In the face of Dahvie’s broken world and mistakes, in the face of my miscarriage, Pope Francis says it best:

…the horizon is bigger than the problems, hope goes beyond all the problems…

Quotes from Pope Francis come from: https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/there-grace-god-what-pope-francis-thinks-prisoners and http://www.lastampa.it/2017/08/24/vaticaninsider/pope-francis-to-studentinmates-punishment-must-have-a-horizon-of-hope-gKo3YCXEVTnLJclJO4hvGL/pagina.html\

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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??