Mercy’s Call : Re the Incarcerated

October 28, 2016

Today, we circle back to the last of our Corporal Works of Mercy, Visit the Imprisoned.  This week Rob Tasman, Executive Director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, shares his experience of visiting, advocating for, and  accompanying those who are imprisoned. 

 At times, Scripture verses become all too cliché when attempting to apply them to a particular issue of the day. In many ways, this can be said of Matthew 25: 35- 36. However, to unpack those verses and the context in which they are proclaimed, even on a merely spiritual level as opposed to conducting a full exegesis, is to understand God’s special concern, attention, and love for those who are or have been incarcerated.

Truly though, our dialogue must not rest with these two verses alone. Yes, we are called to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and visit the imprisoned. However, God’s supreme justification for doing these invaluable and worthy things lies in the question posed by the righteous in the following three verses: 37-39, “When did we see you…?”

Why Do We Struggle to See?

We must ask and challenge ourselves with regard to comprehending why it is so difficult for us to simply SEE? Perhaps, instead, we should contemplate what it is that blinds us. If we saw Jesus in the face of those in need, in this case particularly in the incarcerated, wouldn’t we be free of any reticence to help? Wouldn’t we run and throw ourselves into being with that individual?

I would suggest that we are blind to the incarcerated because our love has limitations. We limit who we should care for and who is deserving of our attention based on innocence or guilt. Those who have been convicted, sentenced, and are deemed guilty by our society are no longer deserving of our thoughts and attention. Worse than that, a sentiment of the incarcerated not being deserving of compassion or even love has a tendency to prevail in our judgmental minds. What irony there is in such conditional and limited human love!

We Are All Flawed and Called to Love:

What is inseparable from the Judeo-Christian experience is the fact that we are FLAWED. We ARE flawed, yet there is beauty in this reality. For our flaws contribute to the differences among us and point us in the direction of the redemptive, unconditional love that God has for his imperfect creation in the form of Agape. Put another way, to be flawed is to be human and to love is to be Christian. God IS love.

Our call then is to love as God does. Our loving Father is a God of second chances. Look no further than within our salvation history to our ancestors, the Israelites. As our Archbishop of New Orleans, Archbishop Almond, has so simply and powerfully put on many an occasion, “We may tire of asking for forgiveness, but God never tires of granting it!” Not only do we fail to ask for forgiveness, but on our part, how often do WE truly grant it? Forgiveness is the first step toward reconciliation, which is yet another beautifully critical part of our faith and call.

The Challenge of Accompaniment:

I also find it helpful to contemplate a word that our merciful pope, Pope Francis, favors in his discourse: accompaniment. Take notice of how often he uses this term. Our holy father challenges us to accompany, literally walk with those who are in need. It is amazing what you learn from accompanying the incarcerated in their journey. It is powerful to discover what families of those who are incarcerated experience, and the only way to do so is to accompany them as well on their journey.

Incarceration is a complex issue. Initially, we MUST see those individuals who are or have been incarcerated as human beings, possessing dignity, worth, and a redemptive spirit not just in spite of poor choices and transgressions, but exactly BECAUSE of them. Who among us has not made a poor choice? From there we must understand that there is work to be done. We cannot just visit, we must advocate for just reform within the criminal justice system so that it aligns itself more closely with the redemptive and rehabilitative love of Christ.

We must realize that families are involved and therefore if we truly believe that the family is the MOST sacred unit – as our Church and faith proclaims – there is much at stake. This compels us to work toward ensuring that those who have served their time and re-enter society are able to do so in a dignified way in which they can be granted gainful employment and support themselves and or their families. This clearly proclaims their dignity and invites them to become whole again. We must be aware of issues such as the price of phone calls that inmates are placing to contact their families and loved ones – prices paid by those in the “free” world since such calls are collect. Are these rates just or do they stand in the way of connection, bonding, and love?

Being Ministered to by the Incarcerated:

We understand this (or I would hope and pray that we do) better than most given that we live in Louisiana where we incarcerate more individuals in this state than anywhere else in the United States of America. As I close, let me offer one way in which we can begin to progress. Shamelessly, I would like to uphold my wife, Katie, and her heart and vision. As a Confirmation coordinator for a Catholic parish in Baton Rouge, she helped to institute the first Confirmation retreat within the diocese that was held at and given by the inmates at Louisiana’s maximum security (and indeed infamous) Angola penitentiary. Some parents of teenage catechumens questioned why. Others flat our refused to allow their child to attend claiming that there was no way that this could be a retreat.

Those who went were changed forever.

Men, some who had gone so far as to take the lives of another, proclaimed the gospel to those in attendance, shared in the Mystery of the Eucharist, and exemplified – “beyond a reasonable doubt,” to use a legal term of art that may have lead to their conviction in a court of law – Christ’s transforming and redeeming love. If any were blind when they entered, through His amazing grace, they could clearly see when they exited the gates of the prison. Not only has this retreat at this particular parish continued over the past nine years, similar gatherings have been held at Angola even organized by the business community in the state to “persuade” employers that when the incarcerated are free to leave, they are employable because they are human.

The reality is, in my role, I can go to the state Capitol and advocate for reforms mentioned earlier such as “Ban the Box,” ensuring that inmates have access to education and training while in prison, that they may be granted an “employability certificate,” that phone rates for those placing calls from within a prison are just, but nothing will change unless our hardness of heart is softened and we are allowed to see.

What is Our Call?

Our call is multifold when it comes to those who are or have been incarcerated. It includes:

  • Seeing and therefore freeing ourselves of the judgment and preconceived notions that blind us;
  • Loving in a more unconditional manner, realizing that none of us is free of poor choices and our own personal transgressions;
  • Not allowing whether or not we or other are guilty or innocent define who we are in its totality, for our God is a God of second chances;

To do all of this is challenging but is also ESSENTIAL. We are one, one flawed and beautiful human race and we must approach how we enter into relationship with one another from this reality. We are one because God’s love for us is the one, true, pure love. Let us see Him in the incarcerated so that we are compelled to visit, to advocate on behalf of, and to accompany in Love!

Becky is an Ignatian-trained spiritual director, retreat facilitator, and writer. She is the author of the Busy Lives and Restless Souls (March 2017, Loyola Press) and The Inner Chapel (April 2020, Loyola Press). She helps others create space to connect faith and everyday life through facilitating retreats and days of reflection, through writing, and through spiritual direction. With nearly twenty years of ministry experience within the Catholic Church, Becky seeks to help others discover God at work in the every day moments of people’s lives by utilizing St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the many gifts that our Catholic faith and Ignatian Spirituality provide.

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