On Saturday, I completed my last lay ministry class in Catholic Social Doctrine (Social Justice) which is rooted in 2000 Bible verses, particularly the Gospel. Due to family duties, I had to move my studies from The Boston School of Theology to a local theology school in San Antonio called the Mexican American Catholic College which I have loved. On Saturday, a nun (name not mentioned) from Ireland, who has dedicated her life to prison justice and prison ministry, spoke about her life experiences in this area.
This icon of Jesus behind barbed wire was created by a living incarcerated person. Since this person didn’t have a canvas or paint in prison, he used a cloth napkin, coffee for brown paint, and red and green M&Ms for those colors. The three foundational themes of my last class Saturday were: Christians especially should be unconditional wound healers and should give unconditional love, not be those who create wounds. Every one (no exception) who walks this earth is equally-created in God’s image (The Imago Dei) and deserves equal human dignity. Those bringing love to a prison should turn the bricks of the prison walls from shame into hope.
The Sister also distributed handouts created by Gerald J. Caffrey. His life from 1947-2012 was a life dedicated as the Industrial Training Supervisor for the Greenhaven Correctional Facility in Stormville, New York. His class literature gave some very wise advice based off of a life of long-term service dedicated to incarcerated persons. Here are some incredible pieces of wisdom which could be applied to any situation where listening and empathy are necessary. The presenting Sister shared the same philosophy.
1. It is important to understand how the person sees his or her own situation.
2. Encourage ventilation of feelings.
3. Pick up on key feeling words like “I’m scared.”
4. Listen attentively
5. Use open-ended question like, “Can you tell me more?”
6. It may be helpful to review what has been discussed at the end.
7. It may be helpful to provide useful information, but use this sparingly.
8. Use the principle of mutuality.
9. Small talk can be useful.
10. Don’t assume anything.
11. Do not become the person with all of the answers.
12. God is with us; we aren’t there to convert but to be a wound healer.
13. Don’t get hooked into negativity.
14. Lay off the “God Talk.”
15. Be in touch with yourself.
16. Don’t ask them what crime he/she/they committed.
It amazes me that even when I share the life and death consequences of not showing love and empathy to marginalized populations and their families, some lay people and even ministers will still not listen, and even become hostile. Some on the Right think that other peoples’ lives are up for debate rather than a non-negotiable matter of life, death, and human dignity, regardless of who they are or what they have done.
As the Civil Rights Activist James Baldwin said, “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and my right to exist.” This should be applied to all people, not just some people.