Recently I was reading a new publication from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops entitled, “Living as Missionary Disciples: A Resource for Evangelization.” This publication is very well written, to the point and offers opportunity for its readers to reflect on our call and responsibility to bring Jesus to the world as individuals and as church. I highly recommend it for parish leadership, adult formation and small groups.
As I was reading, I tried to recall what evangelization looks like at its core in my own experience. Of course, in my ministerial years I have watched God work through children, youth, RCIA participants and adults. Today, I see the Spirit working through Christ Renews His Parish and ALPHA. All have touched my life in an amazing way and brought me closer to Jesus.
There is a ministry, however, that I have the privilege of being involved in that has taught me about evangelization at its most raw and heartfelt level. I think in some ways, it is what Jesus and the early disciples experienced. I am grateful to be part of an ecumenical group that provides worship services for inmates in prison. We go several times per year (churches around the area take turns) and pray with about 200 inmates. In the 12 years that I have been participating, many faces remain the same. Their crimes must have been significant and their sentencing severe.
As they enter the room set aside for worship, we have the opportunity to shake their hands, look them in the eye and welcome them. They are all ages and races. Many could be my son or brother. You see a vulnerability and sense a life lived day by day. Many of them are pushing a fellow inmate in a wheelchair or walking with a dog that they are training for someone who is blind or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The prison security officers check them in and remain with us. We have even experienced several who will worship with us.
The prison has its own choir/band made up of unbelievably talented inmates that we request when we go. Worship usually begins with the song “Shackles” (Praise You) by Mary, Mary. Some of the lyrics include: “Take these shackles off my feet so I can dance. I just want to praise you, I just want to praise you. You broke the chains now I can use my hands and I’m going to praise you.”
Though the song seems very appropriate for their circumstances, we are all brought to our feet with the reminder that we are all shackled by our sinfulness that only God can unleash. The power of that many male voices and hands being raised to God is remarkable. The energy touches your soul.
The music isn’t the only time when the Spirit reveals itself. There are sincere words of affirmation called out during the reading of Scripture and the homily. The Creed and Lord’s Prayer are recited and meant. But the moment that often takes our breath away is when the men offer their petitions out loud for their parents, their children, spouses, for each other and for those they have hurt.
Please do not think that I am romanticizing this situation because somewhere in the story of each of these men are victims. They themselves acknowledge their past and pray for forgiveness.
So how do I believe that these men have their “Come to Jesus moment”? How are they evangelized?
I believe that the answer is found in the Mt 5:3: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” It seems that when we are in those moments when we are lost and without hope, we have the greatest opportunity to experience the love and salvation of Jesus. When we no longer can rely on ourselves for direction, we can encounter the healing presence of Jesus.
The document, “Living as Missionary Disciples,” states (from Ecclesia in America): “An encounter with the Lord brings about a profound transformation in all who do not close themselves off from him. The first impulse coming from this transformation is to communicate to others the richness discovered in the experience of the encounter.”
I’ve learned so much about evangelization in prison. I wish we all could find a way to “Come to Jesus” with nothing but our absolute need and longing for him. For you and me, it is a choice. Let’s choose it and build the kingdom.
Otto is Stewardship and Special Projects director for the diocesan Stewardship and Pastoral Services Department.