Seeing Christ in the prisoner is key to ministry, say priests, deacons, religious

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A priest prays with a death-row inmate in 2008 at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ind. There are more than 30 Catholic organizations providing some kind of prison ministry in the United States. CNS photo/Tim Hunt, Northwest Indiana Catholic

Farah Rasheed became a Nation of Islam minister while he was serving a 40-year sentence for a repeat drug possession. As such, he was recognized as a leader among his fellow African American inmates. Yet, he recalled during a brief parole — and even before his imprisonment — encountering Catholics who were trying to assist him with his needs.

“I was used to dealing with a lot of Protestants, and these Catholics were always so peaceful,” said the man who now goes by the name Derwin Romani. “Why do I keep bumping into these Catholic people?” he remembers asking himself before requesting to meet with a Catholic chaplain.

That’s when he met Deacon Roy Forsythe at the Oklahoma County Jail in Oklahoma City. The chaplain gave him a rosary and met with him regularly, eventually baptizing him. “If it hadn’t been for Deacon Roy’s ministry, who would have known? Sending him in there with the rosary was not only therapeutic, it was life-saving,” he said.

Since being released in 2017, Romani has been attending Oklahoma City’s traditionally African American Catholic parish, Corpus Christi, and even joined Deacon Forsythe’s team of volunteers.

Read more from our Fall Vocations Special Section here.

Deacon Forsythe, who also serves at St. John the Baptist Parish in Edmond, Oklahoma, entered prison ministry shortly after his 2006 ordination. Since that time, he’s recruited several volunteers, including a team of women to visit the women’s unit.

“As I began to show up, inmates heard I was there, they’d come in seeking rosaries,” Deacon Forsythe said. “They’d wear these plastic rosaries like jewelry, but it gave me an opportunity to share the Good News of Jesus Christ.”

Although regular worship services aren’t allowed, Deacon Forsythe has worked with individuals seeking to become Catholic. He’s baptized inmates such as Romani and has arranged for priests to hear confessions and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley to confirm candidates.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, chaplains and other volunteers have been blocked from visiting the prison, but Deacon Forsythe continues to remember all of the inmates when he prays the Liturgy of the Hours. Being involved in the ministry has strengthened his own diaconal vocation, he said.

“I don’t know how you could have a better ministry than presenting the Gospel to people who’d never heard it,” he reflected.

‘Let me do all the work’

Deacon Joe Ryan from the Diocese of Phoenix entered prison ministry in 2003 after being prompted by others on separate occasions. After initially resisting, he went through his diocese’s prison ministry as a lay volunteer and distributed Bibles and played his guitar for a Communion service at Estrella Jail in Phoenix. His involvement eventually led him to discern the diaconate.

“If I had the grace of ordination, if the Lord called me to do that, that would be a greater strength to do what he wanted me to do,” he said. “Ordination definitely gives you strength. It’s a reality — the strength you get to preach the Gospel and be Christ to the other person and see Christ in the other person.”

Since his 2012 ordination, Deacon Ryan has been serving at Lower Buckeye Jail in Phoenix, although he’s also been restricted from entering the prisons because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I pray for them every day and pray that we’ll be able to get in there soon. I write down my intentions for the day, and the prisoners I would be ministering to are my special intentions. I include them in daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours, in my Rosary and whatever prayers I say every day,” Deacon Ryan said.

At the prison, he led Communion services and provided counseling. Many of those he counsels are in prison for drug-related crimes, something he relates to as a recovering addict himself. He said he finds the inmates are more open to listening to him after he shares his story.

“My debt of gratitude for all [God has] done for me is so great that sometimes it can feel overwhelming. Sometimes I get this feeling of being totally inadequate. I remember the first time it happened, it’s like a crisis, ‘What am I doing here?'” Deacon Ryan said. “The Holy Spirit said, ‘That’s right, it’s good that you know yourself. Just put on a smile, go in there and talk to these people, stand aside and let me do all the work.'”

Importance of listening

Sister Charles Marie Serafino of the ​​Sisters of St. Mary of Namur mentored women at Federal Medical Center, Carswell, in Fort Worth, Texas, before retiring five years ago. She had just returned from missionary service in Africa when another sister recruited her to serve as a mentor.

The experience gave Sister Charles Marie a better appreciation for what many of the women she served went through. Many, she said, were imprisoned because of their involvement in the drug trade that they were forced into by their husbands or parents. She also noted the difficulty that many former inmates encounter after they are released.

“A lot of people will go in and talk to them, but having them come into their community and welcome them into their church, someone who’s been in prison, that’s very difficult. People just don’t want them in their community,” she said. “Visiting prisoners is something Jesus asked us to do. Listening to them is the most important thing.”

All about relationships

The lack of welcoming affects the recidivism rate, says Father Wayne Morris, who serves as a contract chaplain at the Noble Correctional Institution, a low-level state prison in Caldwell, Ohio.

“When I’m in the prison, I like to the tell the guys that the only difference between them and me is I haven’t got caught yet. I’m not saying I do criminal stuff, but in regards to sin, theirs is public, mine’s private,” said Father Morris, who is also the pastor of a cluster of churches in Noble County in the Diocese of Steubenville, Ohio. “Like St. Paul, I’m the worst of sinners, but through Christ’s mercy, God saves me, and I’m not afraid to proclaim it.”

On a typical Wednesday afternoon, he visits the prison with his organist. While she sets up for Mass, he hears confessions. He then celebrates the Mass from the previous Sunday. Afterwards, he leads a Bible study that doubles as an RCIA class. Candidates will then enter the Church during the prison’s “Easter Vigil,” i.e. Easter Sunday. Father Morris can still visit the prison, but he and other volunteers are required to wear masks.

“A lot of times, guys find Jesus in prison. It’s easy to find Jesus in prison, but as soon as you leave, for some reason, Jesus stays in the prison. That’s an easy way for them to make their way back,” he said. “My hope is [that] by the ministry we do, we can show them a better way.”

Father Morris recalled one inmate complimenting him by saying, “You actually care,” which seems like a “no-brainer” to him.

“I’ve always believed that ministry is about relationship, our relationship to God and our relationship to one another, which is the greatest commandment,” he said. ” Living out that relationship means meeting you where you’re at. When Christ says, ‘I came for the sick, not for those who are well,’ he met people where they’re at and wanted to lift them up.”

Tony Gutierrez writes from Arizona.

Tony Gutierrez

Tony Gutiérrez writes for OSV News from Arizona. Maria-Pia Negro Chin, Spanish editor for OSV News, contributed to this story.