When Jim needed a job to support his young family, he found one teaching residents in a maximum-security prison. It was never where he expected to end up, but God used his skills for adult education and his ability to connect easily with others to bring the Gospel to an often-forgotten population.
The job became more than a job when the Catholic chaplain recruited Jim to help him coordinate a Christmas Eve Mass in the prison where the local bishop was presiding. He met the bishop at the prison gates and accompanied him through security. Walking down the corridor to the repeated percussion of security gates banging shut behind them, Jim thought to himself, “Here I am in this maximum-security prison, surrounded by all this stuff—good, bad, and ugly—and I’m escorting a representative of Jesus Christ into this prison where there is as much need as anywhere in the world.” Reflecting on the moment later, Jim thinks the Holy Spirit was walking with them in that corridor, too, because he was moved and felt humbled.
This experience early in his career as an adult educator stuck with Jim, but he didn’t know what else to do to continue Jesus’ outreach to the prison residents. Many years later, after work had taken Jim to other contexts, he wanted to see if he had it in him to get back in front of a class at the prison. He did. Now at a minimum-security prison, Jim found he had a way of inspiring and mentoring the men to “get their minds right” through committing to their education.
During this time, Jim felt God nudging him saying, “I could do more in that prison.” Jim said the Evangelical Catholic’s Mission Training he had received at his local parish started “stirring up the Spirit” in him. He continued, “I was just itching for a way to express that, to evangelize, to help others. I felt I had a natural skill as a teacher, that adults would follow my lead, that we could communicate and grow together.” Knowing he’d been successful in helping inmates achieve educational goals, he thought, “I might be successful at reaching them in a spiritual context.”
Jim remembered his earlier experience with the bishop and reached out to his diocese’s office of social concerns. They connected Jim with the prison chaplain, and Jim started accompanying him to assist at Mass and bring the Eucharist to residents who were unable to leave the health clinic. “That was a very moving experience. I never had seen the neediest of the needy as in that clinic. The health conditions they were in, the deplorable loneliness these guys faced. And some of them have done ten, fifteen, thirty years incarcerated—their families abandoned them, their friends abandoned them. Abandonment is one of the great enemies in the prison.”
Jim also started meeting with a group of inmates to lead them in a Bible study, even though he had to wade through a lot of red tape to get the right security permissions to do so. “A lot of things spurred me to do it, including listening to the words of Jesus, ‘Love one another; love one another; love one another.’ ‘Keep my commandments.’ ‘Go forth.’ ‘Convert all nations.’ So, I thought, I could be an extension of Jesus in the world and the mission of the Church in this way.” His knowledge, skills, and experience in a corrections environment made what would be a frightening environment for many, a familiar one for Jim.
Jim was inspired by many people in his community, including that bishop many years ago, priest friends, and spiritual directors, and his Mission Training experience, to believe that he could make a positive difference in the faith development of people around him. Through prayerful discernment Jim allowed God to transform what had started as a job to put food on the table into a way for him to extend the love of Jesus to men who had been forgotten and abandoned by everyone else. Like the line from the movie Father Stu, Jim seeks to remind inmates that although many have written them off, “God has not given up on you.”