Faith and Hope in a Jail Cell

June 4, 2015

Our Ontario Regional Council`s Ozanam Education fund is a systemic change project that we started about two years ago. Our member conferences are encouraged to sponsor applicants from families that they have been able to help with various needs such as food, clothing and friendship. The application process is fairly simple with the average grant being about $2,000.00.

One of the more gratifying and unique grants is one that I acted as the sponsor for. I have recently attended several meetings in Kingston, Ontario, home of 6 or 7 federal prisons. It is certainly the centre of our federal penal system. Our goal is to start a new conference of the Society that would be dedicated to the prison ministry, with a particular emphasis on helping former inmates with their re-entry into society. I mentioned our Ozanam fund at one of the formation meetings and was asked if it could be used to assist prison inmates. I said we could look at the possibility and inquired about what kind of education was being considered.

I was told of several inmates who have reached a point in their faith journey that they are interested in furthering their formal religious education through distance education courses offered by Catholic universities. We committed to sponsoring two such inmates and invited their applications. Part of the application procedure is for the applicant to include a short letter explaining why they would like to take this course and what they hope to gain from it.

I was pleased to be able to read these letters before passing the application on to the committee that approves all such applications. While being unable to share certain aspects of the content of one letter, I was moved to tears in reading the letter of one inmate. We will call him John. John explains he is a "lifer" and is not eligible for parole until another 14 years. John is a college graduate but due to his criminal past, has many more years to spend in the prison system.

He states he is a member of the Catholic faith community at his prison and has already taken a number of courses related to Bible studies and theology. His expectations for taking this new program is to continue to grow into the person, in Christ, that he was meant to be through a greater understanding and application, in his daily life, of God`s moral and ethics; and in the continuing life example in Christ. John hopes to be able to use this program to equip himself to be useful as a member of the Church body, both in prison and in his parole for helping in prison ministry and family violence programs and counselling both in prison and back on the street.

John continues by saying he lived the first part of his life for himself but his hope is to equip himself to be useful to God`s cultural mandate rather his previous self-focussed ways. He concludes by quoting Cor.3:10-15 "the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire". John`s application was approved and he will be submitting an application to take the next course in this theology program, which I have no doubt will be approved.

The story of John is one of the most emotional ones I have heard in my many years as a Vincentian. I cannot begin to imagine living a life behind the bars of a prison but would expect that to be able to keep your faith and belief in God must be a daily challenge for any inmate. I believe John will attain his parole in a few years and go on to make a positive difference in the lives of many others. I would consider it an honour to meet John one day. May God bless him and all those who will spend further time in prison.

Jim Paddon