The Transformative Power of a Visit: Reflections on Prison Ministry

“I was in prison and you visited me…” (MT 25:36)

“Thanks for visiting me.”

There’s nothing like the gift of someone’s presence.  In my experience, this is most powerful when I’m struggling, whether it’s because I’m sick or upset, depressed or doubtful. It’s always a gift to have someone there beside me lending an empathetic ear and an open heart; there’s something very comforting about the presence of another, something very humanizing.  It helps us to recognize at the deepest levels that we are not alone.  

The times when the mere loving presence of somebody has helped me move through difficulties, there wasn’t a magic fix, not some “cheap grace” that instantly cured everything.  Rather, their presence gave me the courage and strength to move forward, slowly but surely. I’m grateful I have people in my life who visit, whose care is a living reflection of God’s faithful love for me. 

In my life as a Jesuit, I’ve come to meet many people who experience loneliness and don’t have someone who visits them.  This is often a heavy burden for them to carry. Prison ministry has been one of my most moving and challenging experiences, particularly when I’ve visited those in solitary confinement.  Solitary can be dehumanizing, deepening the loneliness and depression of the incarcerated. It also leaves them many days alone with their thoughts and prayers. There’s time for the dust to settle and, sometimes, for the distractions to go away. All these people are left with are themselves. 

And with me, their only companion in the time of solitude.  Our visit elicits in me a gratitude for the power of simple human connection – a connection that can have healing effects for both myself and the person I visit.  I’m reminded of our shared humanity, and that sense of solidarity encourages me to love and be loved more deeply.

Our visit elicits in me a gratitude for the power of simple human connection – a connection that can have healing effects for both myself and the person I visit.

It’s easy to take human contact and interaction for granted when you have someone with whom you can share your thoughts, hopes, desires, and struggles – someone with whom you can process everything.  The silence of solitary gives greater meaning to our visits because it makes space for them to take stock of their lives. Many ask deep questions about life, faith, and God. Almost all talk about their families, especially their kids. For most, that time in “solitary”—as painful as it could be— allows them to face the reality of their lives and the choices ahead of them. Many of them feel like they have been given another chance by God to live in better ways. 

For me, these conversations signal the new life of the Resurrection. The resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the ways they needed, in the ways they were most able to receive.   In the first of these appearances, he comes to Mary Magdalene as the Consoler. He is present to her in her sorrow. This suggests that Easter is not only found in joy, but that new life and hope enter our lives from places of grief, doubt, fear, loss, and guilt.  Consolation comes in uncertainty, confusion, or even anguish.  

The resurrected Jesus revealed himself to his disciples in the ways they needed, in the ways they were most able to receive.  

This is where I find God in our visits. I find God in sharing another person’s pain, in their struggle for life—a life that wants to live in them. My aim at each visit is to listen and be a compassionate presence, to remind them of the truth of God’s love for them. My hope is that when they looked in the mirror and see the messy reality of their lives, they do so with the tender, merciful eyes of God. I hope they can see that their past mistakes don’t define the totality of who they are, that their being locked up and kept away from society doesn’t lock them up and keep them away from their true identity as God’s beloved.  

The Christian faith professes the Incarnation–God becoming flesh for us. Having that tender, merciful look come from another human can more powerfully communicate the love God has for them; it can be an Incarnational moment. Every time I visit the correctional facility, I pray that my loving presence might communicate God’s love for them. Our visits do the same for me: they remind me of my own belovedness, of the truth of God’s love for me.  It isn’t about pride (”Look at me!”) but about humility (“Look at the truth of who I am”). That’s a foundational grace for us all.

Every time I visit the correctional facility, I pray that my loving presence might communicate God’s love for them. Our visits do the same for me: they remind me of my own belovedness, of the truth of God’s love for me.

Many priests like to jokingly say that when they give a homily, they find they’re preaching to themselves as much as they are to the congregation. I also found that grace to be true in this ministry.  As I listen with compassion to their stories, affirm their dignity as God’s beloved, and pray that they would love what God loves in them, I often later reflect on how important this is for me to hear, as well. After all, I’m not perfect, and I’m also not immune to being my own toughest critic; I can spin lies about myself and sense of self-worth. Encountering their vulnerability in sharing their struggles gives me courage to do likewise.  It encourages me to be gentle with myself, to open my own wounds to the tenderness of God’s healing love. In this way, I can serve others not only from my strengths, but also from my wounds, to let that part of me be open and vulnerable because I trust that Jesus is there. 

Encountering their vulnerability in sharing their struggles gives me courage to do likewise.  It encourages me to be gentle with myself, to open my own wounds to the tenderness of God’s healing love.

Whenever a conversation ended I was almost always told, “Thanks for visiting me.” All I could ever think was, “The gratitude is mutual.” It’s in the visit that we both encounter God calling us back to the truth of our belovedness. They are grateful for my visits, and I am thankful for the opportunity to grow closer to God through their humanity, contrite heart, and hope; they help  me realize my need for God, a God who draws close to us out of love. In this ministry I have been reminded over and over again of the incredible power of something so ordinary—a visit. My hope is to continue to trust in and cooperate with grace wherever it is found, especially in the most unexpected people and places. God is there, too.

How has Jesus revealed himself to you in the past?

What about these experiences was Jesus “meeting your needs”?

One thought on “The Transformative Power of a Visit: Reflections on Prison Ministry

  1. While I don’t do prison visits, our church is downtown and attracts a number of homeless people both inside and outside. Every Sunday I see Jesus in these people and am reminded how easily my life as an abused woman might have put me on the street too. Always humbling.

    Like

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