Clergy, volunteers work together to ‘visit prisoners’
By Enedelia J. Obregón
In recent years, several parishes have renewed efforts to minister to the needs of the incarcerated in the six prison units in Gatesville. Along with other volunteers from throughout the Diocese of Austin, they follow Jesus’ teachings in Matthew 25:36 to visit those in prison.
The lack of a permanent Catholic presence in Texas prisons –– where about 18 percent identify themselves as Catholic –– created the spark for volunteers and area priests to emphasize recruitment efforts in the Diocese of Austin, said Deacon E. Generes "Doots" Dufour, head of the diocesan Criminal Justice Ministry.
Six of the 15 prisons that are located in the Diocese of Austin are in Coryell County, and the parishes in the county are small, rural parishes without a lot of resources.
One of those on the frontline is Father Timothy Vaverek, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Gatesville, which has 90 families, as well as St. Thomas in Hamilton, which has 40 families. He also ministers to the 120 Catholics in the four units in Gatesville, which has 8,000 inmates.
Volunteers from the other parishes in the area are a tremendous help, Father Vaverek said.
"There is no way one person can serve all these people without the support of other parishes," he said. "Without outreach from the parishes, this cannot happen."
Deacon Dufour, who is also chair of Texas Catholic Correctional Ministers, which represents prison/jail ministries from each diocese in Texas, said the spiritual component is necessary for two reasons: Jesus asked us to do it and it is necessary for the rehabilitation of inmates who will leave prison and have to function well once they return to society.
That’s what attracted John Gilluly, a parishioner at Emmaus Parish in Lakeway, to prison ministry. Gilluly is a volunteer and helps Deacon Dufour at the diocesan Criminal Justice Ministry. He first learned of the ministry while living in Houston 15 years ago.
"I did a Cursillo and saw these prayer chains," he said. "One third of them were white. I asked what they meant. I was told, ‘they were young offenders in prison praying for you.’ That just blew me away. They had nothing to offer us but prayers."
When he was asked to do prison ministry, it took him a year to reply.
"I was skeptical at first," he said. "I was afraid I’d be judgmental, but God planted the seed in my heart."
He still remembers one inmate he met at a four-day KAIROS ecumenical retreat he attended in the maximum-security Eastham Unit in Lovelady.
"This guy was in for 25 years for murder," Gilluly said. "He said his one purpose had been to get out and take out the guy who had put him in there. After the retreat, he talked about forgiveness. It was a very moving experience."
When Gilluly retired and moved to Lakeway in 2005, he contacted Deacon Dufour to volunteer.
Deacon Dufour, who has been working in prison ministry since 1986, likes to paraphrase Luke 10:2: The harvest is abundant, but the laborers are few.
The numbers are staggering. One in nine men in Texas is either in jail or prison, on probation or parole or involved in the criminal justice system in some manner. Within the diocese, about one-fifth of the 25,000 incarcerated are lapsed or cultural Catholics, Deacon Dufour said.
Few people are as forgotten as those in jail, he said. There is no excusing the crimes they have committed, but they are children of God who need to be fed spiritually.
The church teaches that correctional ministry begins with the recognition that the dignity of the human person applies to both victim and offender. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in their document, "Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice," state that "We are guided by the paradoxical Catholic teaching on crime and punishment: We will not tolerate the crime and violence that threatens the lives and dignity of our sisters and brothers, and we will not give up on those who have lost their way. We seek both justice and mercy. Working together, we believe our faith calls us to protect public safety, promote the common good, and restore community. We believe a Catholic ethic of responsibility, rehabilitation and restoration can become the foundation for the necessary reform of our broken criminal justice system."
Deacon Dufour said most people who are incarcerated have several things in common: they dropped out of school, they grew up in homes where there was abuse and neglect, they have a history of drug or alcohol abuse or addiction, there is no father present in their daily lives and they had no spiritual life.
"The spiritual element is important to rehabilitation," he said. "But they’ve had bad lives. Even when saying the Our Father we have to be careful because for many of them their fathers were a bunch of rats."
Byron Johnson is a distinguished professor of the Social Sciences and director of the Institute for Studies of Religion and director of the Program on Pro-social Behavior at Baylor University. He has written extensively on religion and rehabilitation in prison.
In his book, "More God, Less Crime," he argues that faith communities can help address crime, offender rehabilitation and the aftercare programs that former prisoners need.
Perhaps the best known such program is the Prison Fellowship, started in 1976 by Chuck Colson of Nixon and Watergate infamy after he served time in federal prison.
The Protestant ministry ––with eager ministers and their own funding –– came to Texas prisons in 1997 and launched a program called InnerChange Freedom Initiative. In a January 2012 article in "Corrections Today" magazine, Johnson noted the success of the program. A study that took six years to complete showed that prisoners who graduated from the IFI program had re-arrest rates of 17.3 percent compared to 50 percent for those who had not participated.
Recidivism is a big problem, Deacon Dufour said. Prisoners do not have the skills necessary to live in society. Through their ministry, volunteers serve as mentors who model the positive behaviors they will need to participate in society. Deacon Dufour also works with prison guards on how to promote pro-social values based in mutual respect and effective communication.
"That type of training needs to go all the way up the chain of command," he said.
Father Tom Chamberlain began his prison ministry in 1998 while a pastor in Taylor and continues doing so now as pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe in Temple.
"It’s a challenge," he said. "Volunteers have to drive great distances. It’s time consuming. And it can be frustrating …" Even though volunteers make plans ahead of time, there can be last minute changes, which may mean they are turned away when they get to the prison to work with the inmates, he said. There may be a prison-wide lockdown or a unit may be locked down or maybe the person one is mentoring is not allowed out for an infraction.
But Father Chamberlain, who often goes monthly to the women’s units in Gatesville to offer Mass and hear confessions, said he has noticed one recurring issue: sexual abuse from their father figure or partner.
"They also need consistency," Father Chamberlain said. "They always ask, ‘are you going to be here next time?’ They haven’t had consistency in their lives."
He also said that most inmates are genuine in their desire to change.
"Some real changes happen when they go to confession," he said. "It’s a good opportunity to develop a relationship with God."
Father Chris Downey, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Copperas Cove, said about half of his pool of 12 volunteers visit the Gatesville units once a month. That includes the Mountain View Unit, death row for women, including two Catholics.
"There is always a long line for confession," Father Downey said.
The incarcerated people are "hungry" for spiritual nourishment, he said. He and his volunteers offer the sacraments and catechesis, including condensed versions of RCIA. Retreats are also offered.
"Jesus told us on the last day how we are going to be judged," he said. "If you love Jesus, you take care of the least of our brothers and sisters. They can’t come to us, so we have to go to them. We can’t witness if we don’t visit."
Father Downey said we need to remember that none of us deserve God’s mercy: it is a gift.
"What’s the difference between us and them?" he asked. "We’re all sinners. But civil laws have put them in prison. But there are crimes that are not considered to be against civil laws that are sins in the eyes of God … There are many people in jail who are free interiorly and there are many people not in jail who are not free."
For information in criminal justice ministry at the diocesan level, call Deacon Doots Dufour at (512) 949-2462 or go to www.austindiocese.org/offices-ministries/offices/criminal-justice-office.
For information on the Texas Catholic Correctional Ministers, go to www.TxCCm.org.