Catholic inmate outreach goes national
Dismas Ministry provides faith-based rehabilitation
Third in a series on prison ministry
By Sam Lucero
Milwaukee Catholic Herald
|INMATE OUTREACH: Ron Zeilinger founded Dismas Ministry, which is used in prisons and jails across the country, including many in the Green Bay Diocese. (Sam Lucero photo)
MILWAUKEE -- A Milwaukee-based Catholic ministry is putting prayers into the back pockets and on the lips of inmates, victims and their families around the nation, including prisons and jails in the Green Bay Diocese.
Ron Zeilinger, founder of Dismas Ministry - named for the Good Thief in Luke's account of Jesus' crucifixion - learned 10 years ago from Catholic prison chaplains of inmates' dire need for Catholic literature.
"I thought, 'That sounds like either there is an opportunity for a ministry, or they don't know where to find these (materials),'" said Zeilinger, who was working in the development office for the Priests of the Sacred Heart in Hales Corners.
Zeilinger wrote to some 350 Catholic correctional ministers listed in the Official Catholic to ask what they needed to carry out their ministry. "It came back very clear that a three-prong approach was really what these chaplains were describing: Bibles, faith study, Bible study," he said.
Next, he approached the Milwaukee Archdiocese. Fr. Michael Sturm, coordinator of correctional ministries for the archdiocese, Capuchin Fr. Al Veik, director for the Office of Religious and Human Resources, and Paul Rogers, chaplain at the Dodge Correctional Institution in Waupun, helped him put together a board of directors to guide the new ministry.
Milwaukee Auxiliary Bp. Richard Sklba is president of the 14-member board. In addition to Fr. Sturm, Fr. Veik and Rogers, board members include: Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann, former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice Diane Sykes, and Project Return executive director Mary Steppe.
Since then, Dismas Ministry has distributed more than 20,000 Bibles, said Zeilinger, marketing director at St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care in Milwaukee.
The two other elements in the ministry's three-prong mission - Catholic faith study and Bible study materials - are still in the works.
However, they've completed a related project, "Pray in the Spirit: Catholic Prayers for Inmates." The 102-page, pocket-sized book of Catholic prayers, was created after requests from chaplains and inmates, Zeilinger said.
The booklet includes prayers and illustrations by inmates and shows a scriptural basis for the rosary and the stations of the cross, Zeilinger said. "And it has in there how to pray and that's been very helpful to inmates because they're new at that, they're kind of uneasy about how to go about it."
"We invited inmates to contribute their own prayers," said Zeilinger. The prayers include, "Inmate's Morning Prayer," "Prayer Before PRC/Parole," "Prayer Before a Visit," "Prayer for Forgiveness" and "Prayer for Victims."
More than 24,000 booklets, published in English and Spanish and printed by inmates at Badger State Industries in Racine, have been handed out.
Dismas Ministry calls inmates to the hope of the Gospel modeled in the story of the Good Thief "between the obvious sinner, the trash of society if you will, and Jesus," Zeilinger said. "There's no trash. Yes, they are the public sinners, they've made their mistakes."
Department of Corrections' statistics show that inmates who've had faith-based rehabilitation are far less apt to return to prison.
Zeilinger said when he visits inmates, "There's a lot of humility there. The ones who are really trying to change and have changed, there's been some profound spiritual conversion and
they are very humbly grounded in what they've done, who they are and the forgiveness that they know is there."
Dismas Ministry is "very respectful of the correctional system," he said. "We understand that there are regulations and procedures, so we go through the official state or federal chaplains and we solicit from them what the need is among the Catholic inmates. We have a survey card we send them with an introductory letter. The fact that we use the word 'Catholic' in describing this ministry doesn't mean that it's not ecumenical because it rests on the collaboration of these non-Catholic chaplains, and I would say most of the correctional chaplains are non-Catholic."
The response from chaplains in the 17 states Dismas Ministry serves has been encouraging, said Zeilinger, who operates Dismas Ministry out of his home. Dismas Ministry's materials are in 169 state and federal prisons in 40 dioceses, plus county jails. In the Green Bay Diocese, they are in the prisons at Green Bay and Oshkosh, and several jails, including those in Brown, Door and Shawano counties.
"We get letters back from the state and federal chaplains saying what a wonderful program, and we're so happy to have these free resources. It's wonderful to see that collaboration," he said.
Through a partnership with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Home Missions, Dismas Ministry received a grant to expand far beyond Wisconsin.
"We found that they would give sizable grants to us. In doing so we negotiated that we would move into areas where they have designated as home missions," said Zeilinger. In addition to nine Midwestern states, Dismas Ministry serves correctional facilities in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming.
Tennessee, which has inmates from Wisconsin, is the only southern state Dismas serves.
"As we grow, I would like to see more southern states included because Catholics are such a minority there in general, so their needs can be very urgent," Zeilinger said. "Especially in terms of defending the Catholic faith, they come under a lot of attack. They need somewhere to turn, to help in maintaining their own Catholic identity and Catholic tradition."
Zeilinger attributes Dismas Ministry's early success and growth to the Blessed Mother. "I just threw it all on her and I said, 'If you want this for your son, you've gotta pull some
strings because this is going to be an uphill battle,' and the money came in. It came in double of what I expected."
Prayer is the foundation of Dismas Ministry, Zeilinger said. "I think that is so basic, so essential. I think we dare not make a move without having it founded in prayer because what
we are trying to do is extend ourselves as other Christs or in the name of Christ. We need to be grounded in Christ, in the Gospel, so prayer is very important."
He said he hopes publication of the Bible study series will begin in May.
"It will be the first Catholic Bible study for inmates published," he said. "We think it's going to be very well received. We want to adapt it to the inmate culture. They'll have needs like anger management, overcoming substance abuse.... There will be real self-esteem issues, so all of those things we want to weave into what we offer. It will be followed by the last and final piece, the faith study."
The Dismas board has decided to expand the ministry slowly and carefully, he said. "We raise the money that we need for the year and then we plan where we're going to expand. We don't want to go beyond our abilities."
Because it is a Catholic outreach ministry, Dismas seeks partnerships with parishes, helping them see that ministry to the incarcerated is part of the church's mission.
"Our job is not to supplant or replace anything that the parishes are doing," Zeilinger said. "We always want to be respectful with what's in place. We're there to serve (parishes) too. It's important that we collaborate with parishes and always see ourselves as the servant of both the parishes and the correction chaplains and the inmates."
For more information on Dismas Ministry go to www.dismasministry.org.
Next: Ministry sets prisoners free