By Beth Donze
Pops, an inmate at B.B. “Sixty” Rayburn Correctional Center, announces the same personal intention at every Wednesday night Communion service held inside his prison’s 200-seat chapel: “Lord, help us so one day these gates will open up, and we all can go home in glory.”
Such hope, kept alive even in a place wrapped in razor wire, inspires five parishioners from Mary Queen of Peace Church to make the 100-mile round-trip from Mandeville to Rayburn on first, third and fifth Wednesdays in their desire to bring Christ to the incarcerated.
Growing presence since 2005
The group of inmates whom they visit – known as the “St. Peter Catholic Community” – has increased from eight participants at the ministry’s first gathering in 2005, to 90-plus men.
“They are hungering for people who care about them,” said Mike Holland, who co-founded the prison outreach with fellow parishioner John Maloney after a Protestant friend informed him that Rayburn lacked a badly needed Catholic presence.
“Some of the guys have said that this ministry saved their lives, that they found Christ through us,” said Holland, citing fruits that include numerous baptisms, friendships and former congregants who have gone on to find stability in marriage and jobs after their release.
“Some do not respond to rehabilitation, but some do,” Holland said. “The reason we do what we do is that they do rehabilitate.”
Inmate engagement high
The Wednesday-night services, which are followed by a religious-themed movie or talk in the chapel, contain all the elements of a Catholic Mass except for the Eucharistic Prayer and consecration. Because there is no weekend Mass celebrated at the prison, the Wednesday services incorporate the readings, Responsorial Psalm and Gospel of the coming Sunday.
A rotating Mary Queen of Peace volunteer proclaims the Gospel and offers a spiritual reflection on the Scripture readings, but the remainder of the service is announced and organized by the inmates themselves. The incarcerated set up the altar and sound system, pass out hymnals, videotape the service for those who can’t make it, and participate in a choir and band featuring guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and an occasional saxophone.
“When we walk in, it’s a turnkey operation,” Holland marveled. “They don’t participate to get out (of prison) early; they don’t do it for points. They do it because they want to do it; they don’t have to be there.”
Be a ‘small Paul,’ not Job
On the quintet’s most recent trip to Rayburn, on Jan. 31, it was Holland’s turn to offer the spiritual reflection. Standing behind the chapel’s cross-shaped, inmate-carved pulpit, Holland contrasted the protagonists in the night’s two readings: Job, the despairing man who could find no meaning in life; and Paul, the former enemy of Christianity who became the “traveling evangelist” who transformed the church.
“God took (Paul) out of his blindness and gave him the wherewithal to go forward as the great saint of the Gentiles,” Holland told
the inmates, reminding them that like them, Paul had endured alienation and imprisonment.
Holland encouraged the attending inmates to be a “small Paul” – evangelists eager to tell others about how Christ had healed their brokenness and had given them what they needed to thrive.
“This congregation would not have grown to this size unless you were evangelists, right?” Holland said, pointing to an example at Rayburn: the inmate who regularly helped a blind fellow inmate follow the readings and walk to Communion during chapel services.
“How about those of you who wheel in the wheelchair-bound (inmates)? Isn’t that being an evangelist?” Holland asked. “My question to you all is, do you want to be like Job or do you want to be like Paul? Do you want to be the glass-half-empty guy who sees every day as a drudgery, or do you want to be the optimistic fellow like Paul, dedicated to bringing the Word of God to his fellow man? Gentlemen, the choice is up to you.”
Weekly Catholic services
Rayburn, a medium-security prison located in the Washington Parish community of Angie and one of Louisiana’s seven state-run prisons, houses about 1,200 felons serving sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
Catholic inmates held their faith-based activities in a classroom until the inmate-built chapel opened in 2010. Deacon Mike Talbot, director of pastoral care at Rayburn, facilitates most Communion services on the second and fourth Wednesdays, while the pastor of Annunciation Parish in Bogalusa celebrates a monthly Mass there. Guest Mass celebrants invited by the Mary Queen of Peace
ministers over the years have included their pastors, as well as Archbishops Philip Hannan, Alfred Hughes and Gregory Aymond.
“These guys get some kind of service 51 weeks a year,” Holland said. “The only week they don’t get one is the week between Christmas and New Year, when they do their own.”
Grateful for visitors
Brian, an inmate currently serving the final four years of his 22 ½ year sentence, said it was important to the incarcerated to have “somebody who comes from the outside” to facilitate the Communion services.
“There’s a thing about inmates: we don’t like other inmates running things,” Brian said, smiling. “It means so much to us to have them come, because it shows that people care.
“We still are real people that have the same needs the people on the streets have,” Brian added. “We breathe the same air. We just made some big mistakes.”
Bobby, the inmate who leads the chapel band and helps conduct a Thursday night Bible study, said the visitors bring “home” to them, including a sorely missed sense of humor.
“The love of Christ is strong when we come together as brothers in this prison. It’s a miracle!” Bobby said. “When people see it in action they want to be part of it.
“The volunteers here don’t judge us,” Bobby added. “When you mention the word ‘prison,’ people run away. But when they see 100 of us all together in prayer, they say, ‘Wow! Jesus Christ is moving through this community!’”
Putting ‘Christ’ in Christmas
As an expression of gratitude for the Mary Queen of Peace ministry, the community of inmates pooled a portion of their income earned from working prison jobs – pay that ranges from 4 cents to $1 per hour – to surprise the volunteers with a $400 check at last year’s Christmas party. Each volunteer was also given a glass cross etched with “In appreciation for your service in God’s work.”
“I know how hard they had to work for that because they get peanuts to do their jobs, so to commit a percentage of what they earned is really impressive,” said Mary Queen of Peace’s Tom Schwaner, who has been visiting Rayburn for six years.
Schwaner said that while “Jesus himself” asks his followers to visit the imprisoned, his calling to Rayburn has blossomed into so much more than an obligation.
“Homilies take on a new meaning,” Schwaner notes. “Preparing (reflections) involves an intense investigation of the topic you’re discussing with them inside a prison, much more than a priest would (be called on to) give us in the outside world.”
Jimmy Dykes, a 12-year ministry veteran, is continually amazed by how well read the inmates are. They show up with dog-eared Bibles and are able to cite chapter and verse of a given passage.
“The reverence that is expressed when these men go up to receive holy Communion is seen very rarely in our churches – sometimes we do it on such a regular basis that we take it for granted,” said Dykes, describing “a peace that emanates from these men” every time he visits.
“While they’re in prison, in so many ways they’re free,” Dykes said. “Whereas we are free in the outside world, yet we’re in ‘prison,’ with all the noise and the temptations.”
The other lay prison ministers from Mary Queen of Peace are Sam Burguieres and Gordon Cain. John Messenheimer, Prisons Apostolate coordinator for the archdiocese, organizes two annual Saturday retreats at Rayburn. About 40 men and women currently volunteer in jails, prisons and youth detention facilities throughout the archdiocese. To learn more about opportunities to serve, call Messenheimer at 267-9727.