Women and Men for Others: Behind the Barbed Wire and Beyond

In this series, Women and Men for Others, I’ve invited people I’ve met over the years to share what God has made known to them about how to use their gifts and life experiences for the good of others, truly putting their prayer into action and living the Ignatian principle of being a person for and with others. This week, Deacon Tim Messenger shares about his work with women at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. Tim lives the example of a man for others in his work with prison ministry and as a Deacon, husband, father, and grandfather. 

The words ‘prison ministry’ evoke feelings of fear and insecurity in the minds of those who may have never walked behind the barbed wire of a correctional institute. However, often, a visit to a local jail or prison can alleviate this misconception towards those people who reside in these places. I experienced that transformation when I first visited a jail back in the mid-1990’s and have seen that same transformation many times in the volunteers who walk with me in my role as Catholic chaplain for the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women. These ladies are not ordinary; they are extraordinary, not because we misconceive them to be unstable or dangerous, but because they understand God’s mercy and believe they can be reconciled, despite what they’ve done.

While this series is on Women and Men for Others, my experience has been that the incarcerated women serve me more than I serve them. I truly encounter Christ in a very real way through these women’s despair, abandonment and joy.  With that said, allow me to share how I can be, in some small way, the face and voice of Jesus Christ to these women I am so fortunate to know.

This ministry, when considered in its simplest terms, is about sharing two basic realities: the mercy of a loving God and hope in something much greater than what they currently experience. As practicing Christians, we take mercy and hope for granted, but many of these women were raised in environments that suppressed any notion of mercy or hope. When asked by new volunteers “What do I do, what do I say?” I simply respond, “Mostly listen and share with them the simple message of God’s mercy and a hope well beyond this place.”

The process of instilling hope begins with restoring their basic human dignity. These women have been told they are garbage; we remind them that they are and always will be God’s unique creation. They have great value, not only in the next life but this life as well. For many who cannot afford toiletries, an in-kind toiletry program through a local church enables us to discreetly provide items to the indigent population, maintaining their human dignity. Being a male, I try to provide an authentic father or brother figure they may have never experienced, reminding them of their beauty that lies within.

Traditional prison ministry focuses on needs behind the barbed wire, but I feel a calling to a greater need to help these women beyond the barbed wire through transitional support that bridges the gaps that so many face upon immediately being released. Providing transitional support such as housing rental, transportation, and other fees which enable them to secure employment may be what allows them to eventually support themselves and break the cycle of recidivism we so sadly see in many offenders. Transitional support can also be provided through volunteer help in the form of resume writing, job interview training and mentoring, acting as a resource to support and connect them to other resources during the early part of their return to society.

I can honestly say it has been a tremendous blessing to serve this population. I hope this brief witness may inspire you to consider serving in some capacity. If you possibly feel a call to serve behind or beyond the barbed wire, please feel free to contact me to discuss the endless opportunities that are available to serve in this ministry. Find Tim’s full contact information here.

For Reflection

  • What was your perspective of those in prison prior to reading this article?  How might this article have changed that perspective?
  • Do you see others in society who while not physically imprisoned or restrained, still lack self-esteem and human dignity?  How have you or might you respond to them in the future?

Scripture

  • Matthew 25:36 // What you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.
  • Genesis 1: 26-27 // We are all created in the image of God
  • Micah 6:8 // What the Lord requires of you

Go Deeper?

  • If you would like to help Tim’s ministry, you can see some current needs listed on this Amazon Wish List. If you are local, there is also a need for small to medium luggage. Find Tim’s contact information here.
  • Watch this video on the Dignity of the Human Person and download the discussion guide.
  • Read this reflection from our Bishops on our everyday call to promote the dignity of all.
  • More about people for others: Watch this video from Loyola Press explaining more about this Ignatian principle and Pedro Arrupe, SJ, who coined the term.
  • Be a part of the Women and Men for Others series. Share with us about a person who is an example to you of what being a person for others means via this simple Google form. Watch for us to share submissions on social media!

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