"I...was in prison and you visited me."—Mt 25:35-36
It dawned on me that I was left behind in a maximum-security prison and—even more surprisingly—that I wasn't the least bit concerned.
I was serving on a Kairos Prison Ministry team. Three of us had brought food into the prison so that the residents and team could have lunch. I was chatting with one of the inmates that I know fairly well. My two teammates had left and were on the way back to the van. Realizing that they had left me behind, I spoke with one of the correctional officers who helped me catch up with my fellow team members.
That's the day I realized how comfortable I have become being in a gymnasium with 40-50 maximum-security prisoners. Certainly, reaching this comfort level has taken a while. The first few times I entered the prison, it was a bit nerve-racking. But now they are not just "inmates" but unique individuals whom I have come to know.
Father William Howard Bishop, the founder of Glenmary, had the conviction that we should serve all the people in our mission counties. And Glenmarians are very good at that. I live in Bertie County in eastern North Carolina. That means serving the 21,282 residents of the county. It also means serving all 3,360 residents of my town of Windsor.
When I arrived here in 2011, previous Glenmary priests had served inside the Bertie Correctional Institute, often referred to as BCI. One thousand inmates are in what the state of North Carolina calls closed custody; in other areas, this is called maximum security. Just recently, the state has added an adjoining medium-security facility with an additional 500 inmates.
At first, the ministry was a weekly ecumenical service with 20-40 inmates. Since there are usually fewer than a dozen Catholics in the inmate population, this service was open to any who wanted to attend. As often happens in prisons, though, policies change. Now, the Catholic service is monthly and is limited to Catholics only. Although that may sound exclusive, it does give me more quality time with the Catholic residents.
In addition to this ministry as a volunteer chaplain, I have served numerous other times on Kairos Prison Ministry teams—as has my fellow Glenmary pastoral team member Brother Virg Siefker. Kairos is the Biblical word for "God's special time." A spin-off of the Catholic Cursillo movement, Kairos is the three-day course in Christian living that was adapted for the prison environment. Kairos is one of the most effective programs in reducing recidivism—which means returning to prison after being paroled. Kairos truly transforms the lives of many inmates who participate in this weekend course. What I also enjoy about Kairos is working with other Christians on the ministry team. As teammates, we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, trying to proclaim the same message of God's love and forgiveness, which is so incredibly transformative.
For the person considering a vocation with Glenmary, the idea of prison ministry may seem scary. But Glenmary does not force anyone. Each Glenmarian is invited to use his talents in the service of Jesus and the Gospel, serving all those in need. Please know that you too are needed to serve Jesus and the Gospel. Think of the good you could do as a Glenmary Home Missioner.
Glenmary Father Mike Kerin serves as pastor of mission parishes in Bertie County and Washington County, N.C.