By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
A phone call from a deacon who serves in prison ministry at Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison jogged my memory about letters I received from two different inmates. The deacon didn’t call to remind me to respond to the letter writers; God did, because those letters had been tucked away in my overstuffed tote bag for a month!
Both inmates had different reasons for writing. One wrote in response to my brief note thanking him for renewing his subscription to The Catholic Messenger. The other man wrote because I had photographed Catholic inmates participating in an early Christmas celebration at the prison with Bishop Thomas Zinkula.
The words from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel echoed in my mind as I thought about the phone call later that night: “When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?” So, I pulled out stationery from a cabinet in the family room and sat down to write to both men. We’ve exchanged correspondence previously, more infrequently on my part, but a connection has been established. I needed to refresh my memory about what they had written most recently, so I re-read each handwritten letter.
One man, a poet, included a poem in his two-page letter. The other man shared what he has been reading and reflected on Catholicism and the church. He told me that he really liked reading Father Ron Rolheiser’s column in The Catholic Messenger.
I struggle thinking about the reason each man is confined to Iowa State Penitentiary (ISP). A Google search of their names provides articles detailing the crimes for which they are serving time. Their letters, however, are thoughtful, respectful and provide a glimpse of the image of God that each one of us bears. I’ve visited with one of the men during two separate visits to ISP. The other chooses not to attend the group gatherings.
Pope Francis and Bishop Zinkula speak often about mercy and the need to reach out to people on the peripheries, whatever that periphery might be — physical, spiritual, emotional or psychological. For example, in a story in the Feb. 14 issue of The Catholic Messenger, Pope Francis spoke of his “sincere affection” for prisoners and those who work in prisons. Every two weeks he calls a group of inmates he often visited in Buenos Aires, Argentina. “I always had a feeling when I entered the prison, ‘Why them and not me?’” He doesn’t have the answer. But the Holy Father knows this: “The Lord has given me the grace that my sins and failings have been forgiven and not seen” (Catholic News Service).
God does not ask me to judge my two pen pals at ISP; they’ve already been judged. I believe God asks me to remember that every person should be treated the way that I want to be treated, no exceptions. Whatever sins I’ve committed, I pray that God will have mercy, and forgive me. I am not alone. As a faith community, we ask God to forgive us of our sins every time we attend Mass or go to confession.
I tucked my pen pals’ letters back in their envelopes and handwrote a letter to each one. Responding to their letters is a tangible way for me to demonstrate our shared humanity and belief in a merciful God, who gives me plenty of nudges to move in the right direction!
(Contact Editor Barb Arland-Fye at firstname.lastname@example.org.)