Comfort the Imprisoned
Jesus said to St. Faustina: "... I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love for Me. You are to show mercy to your neighbors always and everywhere. You must not shrink from this or try to excuse or absolve yourself from it" (Diary of St. Faustina, 742). The following is the last part of our seven-part Lenten series on the corporal deeds of mercy and how we can — and should — incorporate them into our lives.
I was ... in prison and you visited Me.
— Matthew 26:35-36
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD
Visiting those in prison certainly does not mean being "soft on crime." On the contrary, there are some crimes so horrible that their perpetrators must be completely and irrevocably quarantined, put behind bars for a long time or even for life, for the protection of society and to deter other criminals from daring to commit such evil acts in the future. With some violent criminals, society has little choice but to "lock them up and throw away the key."
Throw away the key, indeed — but not the person. Punishment deters and quarantines and gives the criminal the opportunity to do penance, but friendship and prayer have the capacity to reform and to heal. A true work of mercy is done by Christians who befriend those in correctional institutions in the name of Jesus Christ, thereby affirming their human dignity as persons made in God's image.
For example, the late Charles Colson, the former Watergate conspirator, was converted to the Christian faith while serving time in prison. He went on to run a major prison outreach ministry. Eucharistic Apostles of The Divine Mercy cenacles sometimes take on the work of visiting those behind bars and starting EADM cenacles in their local correctional institutions. Such cenacles help enable prisoners to study the Diary of St. Faustina, the Scriptures, and the Catechism, and grow in their knowledge and love of the Lord. In short, needy persons on our "doorstep" that we are not supposed to "step over" (i.e., neglect; see Lk 16: 19-20) can sometimes be those in the prison nearby.
Meet Dawn Wyrick, who answered the call to bring comfort to the imprisoned:
For the last few years, myself and a friend, Mary Jane, a beautiful woman in her 80s, have facilitated a prison ministry in Long Island, N.Y., ministering close to 500 incarcerated men at Nassau County Correctional Facility. We would speak to men in the Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation dorms on topics guiding them to emotional and spiritual growth. However, we didn't just talk to these men, we loved them unconditionally, and they felt that love when we were with them.
There were always a few who would stop, take our hand, and say, "Thank you for coming." This was their way of loving us. Because their self-esteem is so low, it takes a lot of courage for some of them to approach another person. They lose value in themselves because of all they've lost in life and all the people they've hurt.
When I first started visiting the prison, I was very scared. I didn't know what to expect and thought I was getting in way over my head. But when I saw the faces of these men, love filled my heart, and I felt God's mercy everywhere. This is where I encountered Jesus, and I felt like these were my sons, just as the Apostles were Mary's sons.
Unfortunately, I was no longer able to continue speaking at the prison, but Mary Jane's talks and loving presence has continued to give the men strength during their time of pain and suffering.
My heart remained with these men, so even though I was no longer visiting them, I remained in contact by starting a correspondence program, writing to those in need of spiritual and emotional support. I wanted them to know that they were not forgotten. It allows the men to speak freely, without judgment, to someone who will listen to them, help them grow spiritually, and increase their self-esteem. They do not have many people in their lives that will allow them to feel safe with their thoughts and emotions. From childhood, boys are told not to cry or show any signs of weakness, so when they grow into manhood, they suppress all of those feelings, and unfortunately, those feelings come out in destructive and violent ways. They are strong, physically, but they need just as much nurturing and love as women do. They need to express their feelings, so writing is a therapeutic outlet for them. If they are angry, sad, confused, or lost, it is not my job to judge them. The Holy Spirit directs my pen, and the words I write keep them focused on God's love for them. These men have a deep faith in God. That is what gives them strength for their journey.
I have learned a great deal from these men in what they share. They are intelligent, articulate, creative, and loving men who truly love their family. I am honored that they trust me with their words.
For those of us who do ministry work, we know that we receive so much more than what we give. I believe that is why Jesus asks us to help our neighbors, because it also is helping us. We are to love others as Jesus has loved us, to forgive others as God forgives us.
This year I started sending birthday cards to these men, and it has been a true blessing for them and me. It is something I have always wanted to do. I see the impact the correspondence program has on them, and I thought how beautiful it would be to let them know they are being thought of on their birthday. Our birthday is a gift from God, and for these men, many of them never even had a birthday party growing up because of the environment in which they were living. Many of these men are alone, are experiencing conflict with their family, and have low self-esteem. Many of them have lost friends and family because of the life they've led. They have no one to love them.
I send out around six to 10 cards a month and receive immediate responses from men overjoyed, sometimes to the point of tears, that they are even thought of. For some, it was the only card they received. It's important that they understand that they were created for a purpose and that God loves them very, very much.
These cards bring love and hope to those imprisoned and put a smile on their faces. Since dull walls surround them all day long, they appreciate a lively and colorful card. I have sent bright and colorful cards that say very beautiful words, and they love them. I think the artwork and colors brighten their day.
The following words will forever ring true for these men and me: "Love does conquer all." God's love is what saves us, and when we feel His love, we can then love others and ourselves.
Take time to remember in your prayers those who are imprisoned, for it is within these walls that God's love and mercy is most needed.
Dawn Wyrick has been the facilitator of the Divine Mercy Ministry at St. Thomas the Apostle Church in West Hempstead, N.Y., for six years. She started a monthly Divine Mercy holy hour and a Eucharistic Apostles of Divine Mercy Cenacle. She now works at the Marian Helper Center in Stockbridge, Mass., as the Evangelization and Development assistant. Her prison ministry continues to flourish through the correspondence program. The ministry leaders hope to one day have a community center for post-incarcerated men where they can start their life anew with God as their foundation, and where they can help others through their own experiences.