We talk about Lent. Luke's is going pretty well, but then he visited me and I ruined it. Then Gomer shares his amazing experiences inside the Ferguson Unit prison during the Kolbe Prison Retreat Ministry. And Gomer got a prison nickname.
My Facebook Post on the Kolbe Prison Retreat Ministry
The experience of going to the prison was intense and amazing. The men in white (MIW) who were there for the three days of the retreat (Thursday-Saturday, 7am to 7pm) come from a variety of religious backgrounds- most were lapsed Catholics, some were anti-Catholic and some were agnostics or Muslims.
The retreat followed the format of an ACTS retreat as closely as possible. We had four testimonies followed by table discussions, two by the outside team and two by the MIW. They were powerful, to say the least. Each table had 5-7 MIW, plus one member of the outside team and one member of the MIW as table stewards/facilitators. The discussions were open and honest.
I was tapped as the answer man, so if men had complex questions at any of the tables, I'd get a tap on the shoulder and go and try and answer them. In the end, we had 3 or 4 Q and A sessions with the MIW peppering Deacon Bradley and me with questions. "Why do you pray to dead saints?" "Why do you believe in Purgatory?" etc.
I gave a talk on the Sacraments and another on the Mass/Eucharist. Deacon Bradley tag-teamed with me on the Sacraments.
We did things like Rosaries, Divine Mercy Chaplets, two daily Masses, and we even had an Adoration chapel set up in the prison chapel where each one of us took two holy hours, and the MIW team took holy half-hours from the beginning to the end of the retreat. We had Fr. Sebastine led a Healing Mass, which was very powerful for a lot of the men there.
The people in the Ferguson Unit are gang-affiliated, life-ers, or long-timers. Almost all are there for drug-related violent crimes. These are men who know they are sinners but also know little else about themselves. They are labeled "prisoners", "Offenders," and "Inmates", but we call them the Men in White, reminding them of their dignity. Fr. Sebastine preached against the word "Prisoner", reminding them that Saint Paul did some of his best work in prison. If you are a child of God, no prison can define you.
At the end of the retreat, they had an opportunity to express what the retreat meant to them. One man stood up and explained why he did not get his feet washed. "I was scared. My whole life I've only experience chaos, violence, and negativity. I never knew love. Here, I experienced the love that I never had before, and it scared me. I didn't know people could love like that, and I didn't know how to receive that love. I couldn't believe you would wash my feet and even kiss them. Who am I? I've never seen a man do that for another man before."
I found out while praying before my Life Teen talk last night that a Man In White slipped his name tag into my Scriptural Rosary book, with the words, "Please remember me." scrawled on the top. He's currently in the prison's RCIA program.
One of the funniest moment came at the end, where a man in white was thanking us for our work, then turned to me and said, "You have one minute to win me over on one issue that is killing me about you Catholics. We at a bus stop. The bus is coming in one minute. Before we get on explain to me this: Mary." So I plowed through as fast as I could (took me about 1:20). He looked at me, smiled, and said, "That makes sense. You won me!" Everyone jumped up and started cheering, hooting, and hollering, and then I led it into a "USA! USA!" chant. Then we all collapsed into our chairs laughing.
One man was 70 years old. He will never leave prison. At the age of 7 he married a Baptist who told him he's not allowed to be with her and be Catholic, so he left and never looked back. This Friday he went to Confession and is now fully reconciled to the Church.
One of the most bizarre parts of the weekend was how normal it was: men talking about their wives and their kids, talking about friends and faith. It seems so normal. I'm looking around at all these men sitting at tables and thought, "This could be at any retreat site." I was so nervous going into the retreat because I have no experience of prison life. But that ended after 10 or 15 minutes. It became totally normal. It was weird how normal it was.
That said, we were dealing with convicted felons and men with violence in their past. They were in there for a reason, and many of those reasons were heinous. First Rule: You never, ever ask them what they did. Let them tell you. In fact, after that initial curiosity burns off, you kind of don't want to know. They are trying to change their lives here and now. We all know they have a past, but we do not want that preventing future conversion and the sacrament of the present moment.
Finally, I received my prison nickname.
- Kolbe Prison Ministries - Home — After months of prayer, and through the intercession of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Therese (the little flower), a group of men from the Texas Hill Country began ministering the Word of God in prisons throughout the great state of Texas. Led by Gods call through the corporal works of mercy to visit those imprisoned, these men began minstry with the creation of the St. Maximilian Kolbe Prison Ministries.