By Celine Klosterman
Since connecting with Catholics who led a Bible study at Scott County Jail, former inmate Patrick Andrews said he’s entered a season of rebuilding.
While serving time in the jail in 2009 after committing first-degree theft, Andrews knew he needed help. “I was completely broken. My family had nothing to do with me; the friends I thought I had were gone. I needed to grab ahold of any truth I could.”
So he started attending a Strings of Praise group led by Chuck Easton, who belongs to Our Lady of Victory Parish in Davenport, and John Burkholder, a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport. Through praise music, discussion and Scripture readings, the visitors to the jail ministered without judgment, Andrews, 33, recalled. The Catholics showed “there is grace and redemption through Christ.”
He was later sentenced to the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, from which he was released in June. Now, he said he’s working at a restaurant and hopes to earn degrees in social work and law to help people in the position he was once in. “It’s been a season of rebuilding and rebirth with the encouragement I got from Chuck and John.”
The two Catholics are among many who offer faith-based studies or Communion services for people in prison throughout the Diocese of Davenport. In the past year, about a dozen people attended six diocesan-sponsored meetings for Catholics involved in prison ministry, and Catholic Charities plans to offer quarterly meetings in the future.
The former owner of a blind company in Davenport, Easton began his ministry after realizing one day that Jesus wanted more of him than a “blind man.” The Strings of Praise study was inspired by Matthew 25:35-36: “For I was …. in prison and you visited me.”
“It’s interesting how easy it is for us to look at a prison and block out the human side of it,” said Marty Stratton. He’s among several members of Sacred Heart Parish in Newton who visit the Correctional Release Center in Newton monthly to lead a service that includes Communion and Scripture readings. “People are in there for a reason, but when they come together, they’re brothers.”
Stratton’s fellow parishioner Monica Skokan, who ministers at the Newton facility as well, also believes the Catholic services hold special significance. “Even though it’s just an hour a month, I look forward to helping those who want to receive the Lord in the Word and in the Eucharist. I think if I were in (the inmates’) situation, I would need someone to do that for me.”
For similar reasons, David Sallen worked to bring Catholic services to the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison last year. A deacon candidate, retired public defender and member of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison, he began leading a monthly Communion service at the prison. He and Michael Schierbrock, director of treatment at the penitentiary, also began inviting area priests to celebrate Mass at the prison each month.
Prison chaplains can change people’s lives, Sallen said. Most inmates eventually return to society, and they need spiritual guidance and support, he noted.
At the Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility, Ted Mountz and two other members of St. Alphonsus Parish in Mount Pleasant try to offer that support by offering a weekly Communion service and leading a Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults program. Two participants were slated to receive the sacraments of initiation this week.
“It’s rewarding to see them grow,” Mountz said. “The men will often get into a lengthy dialogue during our Communion service reflection time. They share what the Scripture readings mean to them personally, and often will witness to how the Lord is affecting them directly in their spiritual growth. It’s humbling to realize that the Lord has used you as an instrument to reach these men and hopefully provide the beginnings of a foundation for their life on the outside. They’re always so appreciative of us coming.”
Eugene Lafosse, a member of Holy Family Parish in Davenport, appreciates what 15 years of ministering to inmates in Scott County Jail has done for him. Currently, he leads a discussion-based study called Living God’s Way twice a week for new inmates and men in protective custody.
“It helps me as much as it helps them. As I’m talking with them, I’m reconfirming to myself what I believe.”
Lafosse said he never asks what crimes inmates committed. “I see them all the same. It’s more important to help them look inside themselves” to foster love for God and neighbor.
He prays for the Holy Spirit to guide him and others in that ministry. “This becomes the reason for your life.”