My prison ministry: what it felt like to walk through open doors

I had engaged in prison ministry a number of years ago after the Phoenix diocese hired me to be part of its prison ministry team. The outreach took me to three facilities for women in Arizona: the state prison in the desert, a moderate security prison close to downtown Phoenix, and the local jail.

I helped with Mass and visited the women who attended. I also held a weekly Bible class in the state prison. These early encounters with the inmates were short and limited. Bible studies brought more engagement than Mass, but I felt the call to something more. We did not have large numbers attending Mass or Bible study, and I began to ask myself, “Is there a way to reach out and connect with more of the inmates?”      

The answer to this question came to me one day when the inmates at the state prison were leaving Mass. I decided to walk with them into the prison yard. While walking, I asked them where they lived, and where they ate. I asked them to show me around the “village,” and they did.   

Prison Ministry of presence

The prison had a large fence around several two-story L-shaped motel-like buildings. Individual cells opened onto the outside. Inmates were allowed to stroll the grounds and had to return to their cells only at the designated hour to count bodies. After the headcount, they were allowed to come out again.

In the weeks that followed, I continued to walk with them into the prison yard. I watched as they roamed the grounds, engaged with each other in conversation and outdoor games. My deepest desire while serving in the prison ministry was to enter their lives, sit at their doorsteps and in their cells to be a presence for them. I did join them in the lunch line and ate and drink with them. And I often had conversations with officers who were in view. They never questioned my presence. I felt privileged in being called to this prison ministry of presence. It felt natural to extend my actions to the other two facilities and began to make additional visits on days when we didn’t have Mass.     

Prison ministry is what I was called to do

What I did was not as simple as it might seem— especially in the beginning.  It was a delicate dance of respect and interaction. How do I reach out, invite and not intrude?  Who, when, and where do I engage? I had to test, reach out, and create possibilities. I was determined to show up and attend. It became important for me to make it possible for them to invite me into their lives.

I knew what I was called to do. Years of work in our Good Shepherd programs instilled in me a paradigm that was based on trust in our core values. I did not have an official role in this prison ministry with incarcerated women. I wasn’t a counselor, social worker, or one to give advice or preach. My goal was simply to be with the inmates, counting on the mercy of God to take the encounters where they needed to go.   

I wanted the inmates to know that I was connected with God. This was easy, as I was wearing a religious habit. I did not have an agenda; the agenda had to be theirs. There were times when I felt that the inmates considered me a curiosity, and this became a means of encounter.

Helping inmates through their darkness

Adapted words from Mary Euphrasia lived in my consciousness and accompanied me through the experiences of my prison ministry. 

These were her words: Walk with them, accommodate your pace to theirs, join in their conversation, be with them in their weakness, help them in their darkness.    

As time went on, I was increasingly invited into their lives, into their stories, and into their pain. An inmate once asked me to bless her at the end of our conversation, and I did.  It occurred to me that I could offer a blessing at the end of our conversations and make it mutual by asking them to bless me in return. This became a routine ritual.  Sometimes an inmate sent me to another inmate in need. I learned as I went along in this prison ministry that had come to mean so much. 

A great gift

The time I spent with the inmates was a great gift to me. Many things happened. There were many stories.

In the words of Pope Francis:

We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many live.  We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, . . . they need to find an open door, not a closed one.  They need to find acceptance, not judgment, prejudice, or condemnation.  They need to be helped, not pushed away or cast out.

I tried to be an open door—an open door to mercy as described by Francis:  Mercy is a force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.

Items of Interest is running stories about outreach ministries as a new feature. Stories spotlight PMNA Sisters who have served, or are currently serving, in outreach ministries in the communities where they live.

Sharon O'Grady

Sharon O'Grady

Sister Sharon O'Grady grew up in Denver, Colorado, and entered the Sisters of the Good Shepherd in St. Louis in 1961. She has worked in a number of ministries including those dedicated to helping adolescent girls with problems, addictive women, women in prison and homeless families recovering from domestic violence. These ministries led her into deeper experiences of the Good Shepherd’s love for each and every person and have challenged her to become more like the Shepherd.