Ministry provides caring presence to inmates
When one reflects on the many ways Christ invited his disciples to be his hands and feet, the call to visit the imprisoned might provoke some discomfort.
But through the archdiocese’s growing prison ministry, responding to Christ’s invitation is easier than ever, said John Messenheimer, the archdiocese’s prison ministry coordinator since October.
“The gentlemen very much appreciate your presence; they appreciate that someone is willing to spend time with them when they don’t have to,” Messenheimer said.
“The Gospel as a whole is a call to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” Messenheimer added. “In this life we have to balance personal responsibility with communal responsibility; we are called to act out in charity toward one another, and visiting the incarcerated is a way of doing so.”
The Ohio-born Messenheimer, 29, earned an undergraduate degree in criminal justice and a master of divinity from Harvard University, while gaining experience in hospital-based pastoral care and working with adults with intellectual disabilities. He said about 40 people currently are involved in the archdiocese’s prison ministry in some capacity.
“It’s as little as a lay volunteer who spends one day a month helping to facilitate a Mass or doing a visit in prison, to several deacons who are doing as many as 30 hours a week in prison work – offering Bible studies, education courses and visiting with inmates,” he said. “We are also fortunate to have many clergy who are wonderful, who (celebrate) Masses and offer confessions.”
To build its ministerial ranks, Messenheimer’s office is holding a series of orientation sessions to introduce men and women 21 and older to ways they can minister to inmates living in the 11 correctional facilities in the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Other than in special circumstances involving a group setting, prison ministry pairs men with men, and women with women. All personality types are amenable to prison ministry, Messenheimer said.
“The No. 1 pre-requisite is that you care – there is that common thread of (volunteers) wanting to be there, of caring about the inmates,” Messenheimer said, noting that in Louisiana prison culture, volunteers often use Bible study as a gateway to ministry. “Along with that comes being a good listener, being someone who will go in and express enthusiasm, and go in consistently, because a consistent presence is often what speaks louder than words in this environment.”
Messenheimer or another prison ministry veteran accompanies new volunteers on their prison visits until they feel comfortable. The Prison Ministry Office provides all necessary training and materials at orientation, which consists of two hour-long evening sessions. Prospective volunteers also must complete a three-hour online course through the National Institute of Corrections and undergo the state background check required of those who volunteer or work in Louisiana corrections facilities.
A pressing need
“America incarcerates more people per capita than any other nation in the world, and Louisiana incarcerates the most per capita in America, so we live in the No. 1 of the No. 1,” said Messenheimer, noting that the state houses more than 40,000 inmates.
“That’s a significant portion of the population living in circumstances that are not always conducive to fruitful living, (but) where the fields really are ripe for harvest,” he said. “They really are thirsty for spiritual care, thirsty for God, thirsty for human interaction.”
Messenheimer isn’t the only one bringing the issue to the fore: In an address last November on Catholics’ calling to minister to those behind bars, Pope Benedict XVI said the re-education of prisoners must be the defining feature of corrections systems throughout the world.
“That education most often happens through forms of spiritual care, through forms of evangelization, through forms of offering service and presence to those who are incarcerated,” Messenheimer said.
Messenheimer also hopes to expand local Catholic involvement in the Kairos Prison Ministry, an international ecumenical prison ministry with 400 chapters around the United States, including the local one at Rayburn Correctional Center in Angie, La. Kairos comes from the Greek “cursillo,” meaning “God’s special time.”
Kairos has teams of prison ministers facilitating monthly, four-day retreats at Rayburn in which inmates are invited into relationship with Christ through talks, prayer, group activities and follow-up “prayer and shares.”
Kairos also offers the option to serve on a “support team” outside prison walls. Volunteers involved in this aspect of the ministry prepare meals and help organize workshop materials.
“It’s encouraging to see people in prison open up and smile,” Messenheimer said.
The next orientation session for those wanting to learn more about the prison ministry will be April 23 at 6 p.m. at St. Peter Claver School, 1020 North Prieur St., New Orleans. Attendance at the orientation does not obligate a prospective volunteer to join the ministry, Messenheimer said.