The inmates at local prisons live behind locked gates, but some groups of prison volunteers are opening doors to forgiveness and a life with Jesus Christ. Twice a year, members of four prison ministries offer special weekend retreat programs for inmates at various correctional facilities in Western New York to help lead them on a spiritual path toward healing and redemption. In doing so, they are changing lives.
The Collins Christian Ministries, Kairos, Keryx and Residents Encounter Christ groups have been bringing Christian communities together in profoundly meaningful ways behind prison fences for years. All four programs have roots in the Cursillo Weekend movement, which aims to build Christian leaders through an immersion in a spiritual experience and exploration of one's faith. Each program has slight variations of the Cursillo model. Both CCM and Keryx were developed from Kairos, and all three are largely ecumenical. REC is strictly Catholic-based. Both CCM and Keryx allow women to serve inside male facilities, while Kairos does not. CCM, Kairos and Keryx all offer weekly meetings for those who have completed a retreat, and REC offers semiannual reunions in between retreats. While there may be some differences, they all share the same basic format and, more importantly, the same common purpose: to promote a sense of belonging to a Christian community that supports positive emotional and spiritual growth among those who need it most.
Both the CCM and Keryx programs feature a Holy Hour of prayer at 7 p.m. during the Saturday of the retreat held at a hosting church near the prison. Those assembled for the Holy Hour hear a witness talk, typically given by a former inmate who made the retreat in the past. He will explain how the experience transformed his life. Following Holy Hour, volunteers travel to the prison and, with the permission and supervision of correctional staff, gather outside the facility for what is known as the "Fence Sing." The volunteers line up holding candles and join together in song to inspire and encourage the inmates to allow Christ into their lives. Just at that moment, a team of about 20 volunteers serving inside the facility, escort the inmates into the yard to see the glowing support.
"You can see the fence is all lit up with candles and people are singing to them." explained Leo Reiter, a member of CCM's steering committee.
"Then those outside the fence call out their names," added CCM volunteer Dennis Mahaney. "They go through the roster and everyone on the outside shouts in unison, 'We're praying for you!' You can just see these guys melting."
For many of these inmates, this is a rare contact with the outside world. Some do not get mail or receive visitors. This may be the first time in years they've see a child or a dog, who sometimes join in for the Fence Sing. It is usually one of the most emotional and unforgettable parts of the weekend.
"There is nothing more glorious than being inside a prison and singing in praise of our Lord with 42 inmates. They all sing too, it's amazing," said Deacon Jerry Hodson, another volunteer, who served as rector on the "inside team" during CCM's recent October retreat.
Longtime Kairos and REC member Mark Duguay offered even more insight into these powerful prison ministries. "The whole idea is for them to get to know Christ and make a decision on that weekend if they would like to truly grow in their faith. Then, they begin to live out their fourth day in relationship with Christ."
Another powerful component to these retreats is the appointment of a group of inmates who've completed a past retreat as "stewards" for the current retreat being offered. The stewards' main purpose is to serve the men who are having their first retreat experience. They help with serving meals, refilling coffee cups, restocking supplies at the tables, and so on. They also serve the men in more intangible, meaningful ways. They offer words of support, the occasional encouraging hand on a shoulder, they pray with them. At one point during the retreat, the stewards also give their personal testimony of their retreat experience and how God has worked in their lives since then.
"It's really powerful for the men to hear someone who's an inmate like themselves talk about how they have gone through the process of having to forgive themselves and forgive others," explained Deacon Hodson.
Discussions over the weekend grow from the self into the larger world and God's Christian view. The first day deals with the individual. Then moves into who is Jesus and what it means to be a Christian man. The biggest message they hear is about forgiveness - learning to forgive others and to forgive themselves.
"It's a reintroduction to Christian values, all biblical based," said Mahaney. "The parable of the Prodigal Son serves as a key element of that introductory night. But the focus is changed from the 'wayward son' to 'The Forgiving Father.'"
"In that discussion, we all come away with a realization that God is love," added Reiter, "That's what God does. That is who God is."
Deacon Hodson went on to say, "Many of these men feel as if they are not worthy, obviously, of God's love. So that is probably the most important talk of the whole weekend - to initially let them know that, despite whatever they've done, God loves them and is waiting for them to return."
With CCM and Keryx, anyone who has completed the retreat is welcome to return each Friday night for a gathering with volunteers. Once a month there is someone from the outside and someone from the inside who both offer topical talks. This continues throughout the year. Kairos holds a similar "Prayer & Share" meeting on Sundays.
"So we don't leave them adrift," explained Mahaney. "They have a regular group that they meet with after that. They go to Bible studies and they go to worship service. But this plugs them back into the sense of Christian life and community they discovered during the retreat - how that can be an alternative and how that can be something redemptive in their whole prison time. It can reorient their lives to pursuing a life that is ready for the outside and ready for Christian manhood, and not just survival once they get out."
Mary Montero, chairperson for Kairos Albion Advisory Council, leads a group of women to Albion Correctional Facility, a medium security women's prison, where the volunteers bring the message of Jesus's love and mercy to the women serving there.
"This ministry reaches out to those who are locked away and seemingly forgotten by society, but they are not forgotten by Jesus," Montero said. "Many who have been released are leading productive lives and following the Lord's path of righteousness. It is a very powerful ministry and we who take part in it are very blessed to be able to bring the message of the love and mercy of Jesus to the incarcerated."
The Albion group hold weekend retreats in May and November, with weekly Prayer & Share small group meetings on Sundays from 2-4 p.m.
Mahaney, who has been involved with the CCM prison ministry for six years, believes that the volunteers who work with the inmates get as much out of it as they do. "I think a lot of (lay volunteers) need it. They need to be called to be disciples. They need to be called to step up. I think they feel this is a chance to really put their faith into practice," he said.
As Mark Duguay pointed out, "The beauty of all of this is the opportunity as Catholics to live out their faith - the Beatitudes. When did you see Christ and help him? You do that by visiting the inmates. You're sharing the faith with them."
The experience has taught Deacon Hodson, who was ordained in May, not to judge people.
"I used to think everybody got a fair shot at life. It was just a matter of staying in school, working hard, and getting a good job, and anyone could do that," he said. "I really had no idea how difficult some of these people's lives have been."
"One of the big lessons I get every time is, and God pounds it into my head, if you lived the life they lived, don't think you wouldn't be here too," Mahaney added.
Each of these local prison ministries can always use new volunteers to work inside the prisons, as well as outside preparing program materials, meals, leading prayer and writing spiritual support letters. If you feel called to support one of these ministries, you can contact any one of the following for more information:
For CCM, contact Leo Reiter at 716-575-4030 or firstname.lastname@example.org; for Kairos, call 716-208-4706; for Keryx, email email@example.com; for REC, call Ernie Curto at 716-628-6185.