Prison ministry volunteers and recipients share stories of rebuilding lives
Apr 23, 2019
In his homily at the Mass that opened the Archdiocese of Washington’s March 9 prison ministry conference, Deacon Bobby White said the Old Testament reading from the prophet Isaiah, in which God calls his followers to be “repairers of the breach,” has special meaning for those ministering to the incarcerated, who try to help them “renew, repair and restore” their lives.
“Every kind work, every prayer, every act of love in the name of Jesus, brings us all closer” to God, said Deacon White, the volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities’ Welcome Home Reentry Program that provides mentoring to men and women returning to their communities after incarceration.
After the Mass, Msgr. John Enzler, the president and CEO of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, offered special thanks to Father Michael Bryant, the founder of the Welcome Home program, calling him “really the father of prison ministry in the Archdiocese of Washington.” Father Bryant, formerly the longtime chaplain of the D.C. Jail, has devoted nearly four decades of his priesthood to prison ministry.
The conference was held at St. Joseph Parish in Beltsville, where the pastor, Msgr. Karl Chimiak, is a longtime police chaplain. Prayers at the Mass were offered for “all of our incarcerated brothers and sisters,” for their families and loved ones, for returning citizens, for those who minister to the imprisoned, for victims of crime, and for prison chaplains, wardens, correctional officers and employees.
Karen McNeal, the senior program manager for Catholic Charities’ prison outreach, welcomed the approximately 70 participants, who in various ways had been involved in “repairing the breach,” through their lives and ministries.
An opening talk on bereavement counseling in ministry to the incarcerated was given by Catalina Conneally-Salazar, who formerly worked with the Office of Restorative Justice in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, serving as a prison chaplain at facilities serving youth and adults.
“I am someone who’s walked with people in pain, suffering and loss for a long time,” she said, noting that incarcerated people suffer the loss of contact with families and loved ones, including being imprisoned while family members die.
At the beginning of her talk, she lit a candle to symbolize the importance of prison ministry, saying, “We are light in dark places. We bring Christ with us wherever we go.”
During the conference, Father Bryant presented an award named in his honor for volunteer service in the Welcome Home Rentry Program to Mike Dombo, a Welcome Home mentor. Deacon Chris Schwartz, the archdiocese’s prison ministry coordinator, presented the Deacon Frank Salatto Award for commitment and service to prison ministry to volunteer Ralph Conlin.
Addressing the participants, Father Bryant said, “We have a system of criminal justice that is not that just.” He noted that “many of people in the prison system are people of color and they come from poorer parts of the community,” and many of them are incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, and he said they often get much harsher sentences than people with more financial resources. “It’s something that as a people, as a nation, we should work to change,” the priest said.
Deacon White said he participates in the Welcome Home program “because I see the need, as many of us have people in our lives and families who have experienced the justice system, and you see deficiencies in it. You recognize the need for outside mentors.”
A mentor in the Welcome Home program spoke to the group about his experiences, saying, “It’s really rewarding, (and it’s) one of the best things I’ve done. It’s a privilege to me, to work with him and help however I can.”
Welcome Home mentors Charlene and Darwin Kemp, a married couple from St. Martin of Tours Parish in Washington, D.C., also addressed the conference. In an interview, Darwin Kemp, a contractor for the federal government, said, “I mentor those that have just come home, talk to them and try to get them established into society.”
Charlene Kemp, a registered nurse, said, “If I could just save one person, my job’s done. I always tell them once they’re good and straight and acclimated to society, you have to go back and bring someone with you.”
Speaking of the Welcome Home program’s name, she said, “It’s a welcoming place for someone to re-enter (society). It’s the perfect name for it.”
Another Welcome Home mentor, Andrea Riley, said in an interview that “I do it because I wanted to give back. I didn’t want our young men to get caught up in the system.” She described her efforts to help formerly incarcerated young men go to college “so they have a second chance.”
Riley, who works as a sales manager for Allstate Insurance Company, is a Pentecostal Christian who attends Christ Apostolic Church in Glenn Dale, Maryland. “I see God in everything. God put you in a place so you could share the Gospel and help others reach their potential and draw them closer to Him, (and) for those people to realize their destiny.”
She added, “God is love. By showing kindness and compassion, you’re reflecting who God is.”
Like many of those at the conference, Deacon White told the Catholic Standard about the rewards of ministering of prison ministry and helping those who had been incarcerated rebuild their lives. He described running into people he helped who have turned their lives around. “It gives me a lot of hope and joy,” he said.
Christopher McNeal told the conference about how Catholic Charities helped him get a fresh start in life after he had served a prison sentence of nearly four years after a drug conviction and relocated to Washington, D.C., in 2016.
“The support system is definitely needed. Catholic Charities provided that for me. I had no family (here). I was homeless,” he said.
Catholic Charities assisted him in finding transitional housing and a job, working as an administrative assistant in the D.C. mayor’s office. McNeal, a former college basketball player for the University of Pittsburgh who had played professional basketball in Europe, joked that he was working as a “6-foot, 8-inch receptionist.”
“I wanted to re-invent myself,” he said.
Through Catholic Charities, he later participated in the agency’s green construction apprenticeship program, where he gained training as an electrician. But later he was contacted by District officials who remembered his earlier work, and he was hired as a community outreach specialist in the D.C. mayor’s office, where he mentors people returning to the community from incarceration, like he once did.
“The transition is real, the possibilities are unlimited for returning citizens,” McNeal said.
In an interview, he said, “You cannot let a setback define you as a person.”
Speaking of his own faith, and of his work now as a community outreach specialist in the District of Columbia, Christopher McNeal said, “I just know I can do all things through Christ… I think God put me in this position. I used to be a basketball coach, and now I’m a life coach. I really think my incarceration gave me a sense of purpose…”
Another person attending the conference, Debra Fennell, also experienced both sides of prison ministry.
When she was about 19 or 20 years old and incarcerated in the D.C. Jail due to her heroin addiction in 1983, she met Father Michael Bryant, then the Catholic chaplain there.
“He was amazing. He would come in the unit to see the women and if we were okay. He was always available,” she said.
At that low point in her life, Fennell was pregnant and sentenced to jail for heroin distribution. Father Bryant “was humble, he would listen to you,” she said, noting the priest’s “sense of humor would lift you up.”
“Everything was biblical with him,” she said, noting how the priest encouraged them to work to turn their lives around with God’s help.
Fennell, who was incarcerated for five years, now is a co-pastor with her husband, Thornton, at Restoration Praise Ministries in Landover, Maryland, and she serves in prison ministry, to help people like she was once helped.
“I have to go back and help other people there who are lost. I can’t forget where I came from. I can’t forget how he (Father Bryant) spoke kind words to me. He always had a shoulder I could cry on,” she said.
And in that work, she shares her own story. “I tell them if He (God) did it for me, He’ll do it for them,” Fennell said. “I believe God restored me, brought me home, to go out” and help others.
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