Jail ministry a call directly from Christ

by Paul Braun | New Earth

Deacon Stu Longtin, St. Anthony’s of Padua in Fargo, leads a Sunday prayer service for inmates at the Cass County Jail in Fargo. (Paul Braun | New Earth)

“For I was… in prison and you visited me. Amen, I say unto you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me” (Matt. 25: 36 and 40).

Ministering to those in need has been a mainstay of Christians since Christ called us to do so in the Gospels. That call includes ministering to those imprisoned. In fact, in Acts 16:25 it states that, “Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them.”

Jail ministry in North Dakota has been ongoing in various locations since before the founding of the Fargo Diocese in 1889. Although living conditions for prisoners has greatly improved over the past century, their spiritual needs today are just as great as they were more than 100 years ago, maybe even more so.

Many parishes across the diocese have taken it upon themselves to offer spiritual services to those serving time in city and county jails (the state penitentiary is in the Bismarck Diocese). These prisoners do not have access to services, and are entirely dependent on the faith community in the area surrounding their jail. The problem is even greater for Catholic prisoners. Ministry is limited to prayer services and group discussions, and it’s rare when a Mass or Sacrament of Reconciliation is offered.

Deacon Stu Longtin of St. Anthony of Padua Church in Fargo has been involved in prison ministry at the Cass County Jail since his formation days 19 years ago. He says that from the beginning, every time he walks out of the jail after a session he thanks God for placing him there.

“There are a lot of broken people in jail,” said Deacon Longtin, “but we’re all broken, and we need time to be fixed. It’s the job of a jail minister to be in the repair business.”

A typical session for Deacon Longtin is a Sunday afternoon visit with about a dozen inmates in the prison gathering room. He has the inmates read the Mass readings of the day, gives the inmates a short reflection explaining the meaning of what they just heard, and leads a discussion before giving them a final blessing. He tries to arrange for a priest to come periodically to hear confessions, so that the inmates have an opportunity to receive communion.

“Inmates themselves, due to their circumstances and the lives they’ve lived, have a different understanding about God,” said Deacon Longtin. “Most of them have a fifth or sixth-grade kind of education in the faith and it stopped there. Many have gone through things in their life that have caused abject fear, and who do they come back to? God, in some fashion or another. We’re here to guide their way back.”

Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center, Rugby (ICON Architects)

Ken Schaan from Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in Balta, has been involved with jail ministry at Heart of America Correctional and Treatment Center in Rugby for over 10 years. He takes the time to pray before the Blessed Sacrament before he heads to the jail in order to be prepared to, in his words, “introduce Jesus Christ to each of them in as personal a way as possible, for a lifelong personal relationship. Also, to calm them from anxiety, anger, or fear.”

“Most of the time they are searching and appreciate our presence,” said Schaan. “Occasionally one may be rebellious and very challenging to our comments. Almost always when that happens, if they return the next week or two, they apologize and say they had a bad attitude. They will also comment about past sessions and the prayers they have offered for others, or even us, and our situations which we have shared.”

Jail ministry in city and county jails is different from the state penitentiary in Bismarck. There, inmates are incarcerated for years, sometimes for life. City and County jails house inmates that are serving much shorter sentences.

“We don't often see the same inmates more than a couple of times,” said Alice Hoffert of St. Michael’s Church in Grand Forks. “Some are only there for short sentences, some are waiting for sentencing and transport to prison, and the most an inmate can be held at this jail is one year. Therefore, we aren't able to make any long-term assessments of change.”

Alice answered the call to prison ministry about seven years ago after seeing an announcement in her church bulletin. She serves the Grand Forks County Correctional and Treatment center with jail ministers from her home parish, along with those from St. Mary’s and Holy Family in Grand Forks and Sacred Heart in East Grand Forks, Minn. Their official ministry statement is, “Jesus challenges us to visit the imprisoned, and so it is our Christian calling to share God's love through our presence with those who are struggling with their imprisonment.”

“During the time I have had the privilege of being part of this ministry, I have always been treated with respect and appreciation by the inmates I encountered,” said Hoffert. “There is no doubt that the Holy Spirit is working with us and through us as we minister to the men and women who join us. Speaking for myself, there is such a feeling of peace and joy each time I leave the jail.”

Ken Schaan agrees. “I would say I have witnessed many times, the Holy Spirit moving through each of us in our prayerful discussion of his love and concern for each of us, equally and mercifully, and some day meeting in heaven despite all our brokenness.”

Jail ministry and Divine Mercy

Sunday, April 28 is Divine Mercy Sunday. Celebrated in the Catholic Church yearly the Sunday following Easter, it is an opportunity for the faithful to reflect on the theme of how God’s mercy can overcome sin. Divine Mercy means hope, especially for the imprisoned.

“Jail ministry is an attempt by an imperfect human being to imitate the Divine Son, to extend with a human face and heart the mercy of the Savior,” said Father Thomas Graner of St. Therese the Little Flower Church in Rugby. “Jail ministry pushes me beyond my own strict sense of justice, right, and wrong, just punishment, retribution, and vengeance to a sense of mercy, reconciliation, and realizing I'm not perfect—I just don't happen to be in jail. Jesus is Divine Mercy; I’m working at imitating him.”

“How I saw Divine Mercy in jail was in a 75 year old man, born and raised Catholic from a large family,” recalled Deacon Longtin. “He got kind of a raw deal from a business partner and was now paying for it as an inmate convicted of fraud. He would lead a group of prisoners in morning prayer. He never tried to correct the wrong done to him, and was letting God handle it. He told me ‘God put me here for a reason. I’m happy here.’ He died in prison, and a correctional officer told me he did a lot of good while he was an inmate. That’s Divine Mercy to me.”

Grand Forks County Correctional and Treatment Center, Grand Forks (ICON Architects)

Jail ministry can be difficult. Deacon Longtin says there can be disappointment, like when an inmate lies to you and challenges your trust in human nature. However, he says it can also be a blessing to himself, and that’s what keeps him going back each Sunday.

“Many times when I walk out I feel they’ve given me more than I’ve given them,” said Deacon Longtin. “I get the opportunity to see the seedy part of life, but also the great part of life of people actually awakening in their head and really realizing that God’s in control and they aren’t. I’ve had others in jail ministry tell me the same thing, that they benefit as much as, if not more than, the people they minister to.”

“One year a young man approached me in a motel in a neighboring city and said he had a job there. He saw me and just stopped to thank me for giving him a new start in his life,” said Ken Schaan. “He said he hoped he would not be back in that situation again. I didn’t really remember him, but it was a very uplifting moment for both of us none-the-less.”

Just as there will always be the poor among us, so will there always be prison inmates in need of comfort, redemption, and hope. Jail ministry is not for everyone, but it can be the right calling for the right person.

“I see jail ministry as making an impact for those whose crimes are especially gut-wrenching—often sex crimes or domestic violence,” said Father Graner. “In spite of the inhumane things they’ve done, they need to be received as humanely as possible and to be heard, prayed with, and prayed for. They thank us for coming when few of their family or friends do, for listening when almost no one other than their attorney does, and for praying with them for the loved ones they care about and for their own needs.”

If jail ministry interests you, contact your local pastor on how you may be of service answering Christ’s call in the Gospel.