A Davenport alderman’s letter to the editor in the Quad-City Times serves as a challenge to Catholics this Lenten season in the Year of Mercy, even if that was not his intention. A convicted sex offender — described in Alderman Ray Ambrose’s letter as “a repeat and violent rapist” — has served his time and may be coming to Davenport to live.
The alderman cites several convictions to demonstrate the danger that Ben Sanders presents to society. Ambrose also cites the newspaper’s previous reporting that Sanders, convicted of rape and sexual abuse committed in Scott County, “is more likely than not to commit another act of sexual violence. …” The letter concludes: “Stop placing men like Ben Sanders in our neighborhoods.”
The alderman’s letter appeared two days after Pope Francis visited Cereso prison in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where he told the detainees that mercy “embraces everyone and is found in every corner of the world. There is no place beyond the reach of (God’s) mercy, no space or person it cannot touch.” What an inspiring, but challenging message to reflect on when we’re dealing with outcasts in our own neighborhoods. How do we respond? How do we balance the Gospel call to love our enemies with our responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our communities?
In his letter explaining the purpose of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, Pope Francis described a “burning desire” that Christians reflect on the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy: to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, heal the sick, visit the imprisoned and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy: to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear patiently with those who do us ill and pray for the living and the dead.
Truth be told, many of us would be relieved to know that Ben Sanders wouldn’t be living anywhere near us. We wouldn’t have to deal with him or have fear of him. But what about other prisoners and parolees, the individuals whose names we’ve found on the Iowa Sex Offenders Registry? Do we shun them, or offer them even a bit of human kindness?
Some 8,200 inmates were confined in Iowa prisons in fiscal year 2015, a figure that doesn’t include inmates in the state’s county jails. And it doesn’t include the children and adults whose loved ones have been incarcerated. Do we avoid them, or offer them even a bit of human kindness?
Deacon David Sallen has volunteered for nearly a decade at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison where individuals who have committed the most serious offenses are sent. He knows that not everyone has the inclination or the personality to do prison ministry. But people of faith can act on that corporal work of mercy in other ways. “The one thing everyone can do is pray – for the prisoners and for their families,” Deacon Sallen, a member of Holy Family Parish in Fort Madison, said.
Employers could reflect on their willingness to provide job opportunities to people with criminal records, and to family members struggling to make ends meet because their bread winner is in prison or jail. Teachers aware of a student with a close relative in prison could provide a little extra attention to that student. “They are going to have extra needs that the average student isn’t going to have,” Deacon Sallen observes. He encourages all of us to challenge individuals speaking negatively about a prisoner or the prisoner’s family member. Consider serving as a mentor in a drug court program, such as in Scott and Lee counties. Join Quad Cities Interfaith and other groups collaborating to explore establishment of a Scott County Mental Health Court.
Individuals like Ben Sanders are a challenge for us because of the misery they have inflicted repeatedly on their fellow human beings. But God’s mercy extends to them as well. If one of them moves into the neighborhood, go ahead and get the Neighborhood Watch activated. But how about offering them a cup of coffee and a prayer, too?
Barb Arland-Fye, Editor