Archbishop Michael Miller celebrates Mass with inmates at a B.C. institution.  Handout photo

Prisons ministry in seeing more conversions in B.C.

By  Agnieszka Krawczynski, Canadian Catholic News
  • September 14, 2018

SURREY, B.C. – After Paul caught his wife cheating on him, he flew into a fury that landed him in a correctional institution.

It was while serving his 5½-year prison sentence in B.C. that Paul found God.

“Prior to my incarceration, I had no direction in life. I was obsessed with making money and partying,” Paul wrote in a letter to the B.C. Catholic. (All inmates’ names in this story have been changed.)

He’d worked as a locomotive engineer, but was addicted to drugs and alcohol. After he found himself behind bars, he realized his life needed to change.

Paul learned Mass was offered every Saturday at a small chapel at his correctional institution and decided to give it a shot. There, in a simple room with about a dozen inmates also there to experience Mass, he met Fr. Gordon Cook, OMI.

“I instantly took a liking to him,” said Paul. “He was different from all of the people I used to know. He had a kind and caring temperament about him, which I now realize was due to having Jesus in his life.”

Paul started going to Mass regularly, and under the care of Cook, began taking Rite of Christian Initiation (RCIA) classes. He received the Sacrament of Confirmation while still in prison.

“My life has been forever changed by accepting Jesus into my heart and becoming a Catholic,” he wrote. “The eucharistic celebration reminds me that I am a child of God and that Jesus sacrificed His life for mine, and everyone else’s.”

Without the support of the Catholic chaplains and volunteers, “I know I would not be free of my addiction and I know I would not be able to forgive myself and others.”

Paul’s story is becoming increasingly common. Last year, 20 inmates in B.C. institutions were baptized or confirmed into the Catholic Church.

“We don’t go in there trying to proselytize, but they see what we do, and they like what they see,” said Bob Buckham, director of the Archdiocese of Vancouver’s prison ministry.

He said an institution might have, on average, 400 inmates. Mass is offered almost every Saturday at every federal institution in B.C., and depending on the institution, 15-30 inmates will regularly participate.

Prison ministry also runs Catholic programs like RCIA and video series like Catholicism by Bishop Robert Barron or Decision Point by Matthew Kelly. 

They are also increasingly offering Alpha, an introductory video series about Christianity, that was recently well-received at the Fraser Valley Institution for Women.

Buckham himself witnessed the conversion of Pete, an inmate who received Confirmation in prison last year.

“He had been attending the Catholic service for a number of years. One day, I asked him ‘what’s stopping you from becoming a Catholic?’ ” The incarcerated man replied: “Nothing.”

Buckham suggested the RCIA program and was there to stand beside Pete as his sponsor when he was confirmed. That simple, profound ceremony had a ripple effect.

“I don’t know if that was the impetus, but all of a sudden, there were three or four other inmates who also wanted to take RCIA.”

Edwin started going to Mass at his institution a year and a half ago. “I heard of people going to church and giving their lives to God and, in time, their lives transformed for the better,” he wrote in a letter to this reporter.

“I wanted what they had: peace, inner peace.”

After connecting with Catholic chaplains and ministry volunteers, he learned about the Eucharist and started to enjoy the “light-hearted and amazingly refreshed” feeling he had after making a confession.

“I’m becoming stronger and stronger in my understanding of what Jesus did for us,” said Edwin.

Angela Veters, prison ministry volunteer co-ordinator, said inmates have been baptized and confirmed behind bars before, but there were more of them last year than any other time in recent memory.

“Our volunteers are witnessing to the faith, and (the inmates) see that. It’s just beautiful.”

John had tried RCIA but never completed it, feeling he had “no time for God” in his life. It was only after his parole was revoked and he was thrown back in prison when he started taking the classes in earnest. “I finally realized I could not do life ‘my way’ anymore, and realized I needed to give my life, or control thereof, over to God.”

He asked a Catholic chaplain about finishing RCIA in prison. Within a week, he was part of a small group of volunteers and inmates studying the faith together. In December, John and two other inmates were baptized. A priest poured water over their heads using a large salad bowl.

“Joining the Church, devoting my life to God’s plan, and putting faith in Christ instead of myself, has changed my life significantly. I want to help others. I feel a connection to God I have never felt before. I am truly happy,” he said.

Buckham said the non-judgmental atmosphere makes the chapel a safe place for many disheartened souls. “We don’t judge them for what they’ve done; we don’t ask what they’ve done. We don’t want to know. We don’t need to know,” he said.

Chaplains and volunteers listen as inmates talk about their worries about ill family members, or their personal struggles, and welcome them to voice their prayer intentions aloud at Mass.

There are 250 volunteers in the prison ministry system. Some prisoners, skeptical of the volunteers’ intentions, have asked Buckham why he bothers to visit every week.

“I just say: we’re all brothers and sisters, and I’m just here to visit my family,” he said.

Prison ministry, running on a $100,000 yearly grant from the archdiocese’s Project Advance fund and other contributions, also reaches out to released offenders and victim families.

Veters said inmates continue to find God in seemingly dark situations; another baptism and one more confirmation are scheduled for Pacific Institution in Abbotsford this fall. 

Other Christian ministries also offer prison programs and baptisms. She has seen some Protestant volunteers haul a dunk tank or a small inflatable pool to offer a full immersion experience.

Edwin thanks the volunteers and chaplains who inspired him to turn his life around. “Prisons and the world are made a better place because of you guys.”

(The B.C. Catholic)

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