Wendy Klesch, Special to The Catholic Virginian


Fall has long been the time for changes — a time to begin new classes and to embark on new challenges.

It might also be an excellent time to discover a rewarding ministry.

The Diocese of Richmond is holding a series of summits this fall — in Virginia Beach, Richmond, Roanoke and Abingdon — offering parishioners the chance to learn more about the variety of volunteer opportunities available with prison ministry programs throughout the commonwealth.

“It’s an opportunity for individuals who have never been involved in prison ministry, and for those who have been involved for years and are looking for new opportunities to engage,” said Rachael Laustrup, an associate in the diocese’s Office of Social Ministry, said. “It’s a way to strengthen our efforts throughout the diocese, to pull it all together.”

‘Many ways to serve’

One of the largest hurdles parish prison ministries face is finding new volunteers. Bob Vaughn, director of Jubilee House in Abingdon, and a longtime volunteer at River North Correctional Center in Independence, noted that some might be reluctant to join their parish’s prison ministry program because they are uncertain as to what to expect.

“It’s important to remember that prison ministry takes place inside and outside of the prison. Not everyone needs to come into the facility,” he said. “There are all sorts of other ways to become involved: letter writing, supporting families, helping those released with reentry — there are many ways in which to serve.”

He added that those who do volunteer to go into the prisons, jails and detention centers might be surprised by what they find and by the people they encounter, discovering a calling where they might not have thought to look for it.

“Some of these men are in prison 10, 20 years — they become isolated; they’re grateful, they appreciate it, just having someone come in,” he said.

Laustrup said that she had never volunteered in a prison until she accompanied prison ministry volunteer Mike Siedlecki, a parishioner at St. Stephen, Martyr, Chesapeake, to Greensville Correctional Center in Greensville County.

“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “I don’t know if I ever met a group so hungry to grow in their faith.”

One man Laustrup met at Greensville had joined the Catholic Church shortly after entering prison — 40 years ago. “He’s scheduled to be released soon, and one of the things he said he was most excited about was simply being able to attend Mass in a real church,” she said.

‘You visited me’

One of the goals of the summit is to emphasize that caring for those in prison has deep roots in Catholic social teaching and is an inherent part of the Catholic faith.

The Gospel passage “When I was in prison, you visited me” is familiar to most people, but in a world of security checks and regulations those interested in getting involved may not know where to begin.

The summit seeks to provide new volunteers with the information they need to get started, while providing current volunteers opportunities to further explore issues related to prison ministry and to connect with one another.

Each meeting will feature keynote speakers, including chaplains from Grace Inside, a nonprofit group that provides chaplains to Virginia state prisons. Attendees will also hear from those who have been incarcerated, who will share their first-hand experiences.

In the afternoons, participants can attend breakout sessions on topics such as addiction, mental health, restorative justice, the death penalty and on developing new and effective reentry programs.

Finding courage to reach out

Siedlecki and Vaughn agreed that more help is needed with reentry programs in particular.

Seventy percent of released prisoners eventually end up returning to prison, Siedlecki said. One prison ministry volunteer, he noted, recently encountered a man who had been released from St. Bride’s Correctional Center in a soup kitchen line. The man reported that he was having difficulty finding a job and a place to live.

“It would be hard enough for any of us to find a job without a permanent address,” Siedlecki said, “and these guys also have to overcome having a criminal record. For many, the circle of poverty and incarceration cannot be broken unless there is some sort of help from outside, unless someone is willing to give these guys a chance.”

“A lot of times, people are afraid to reach out,” Vaughn said. “But we’re all in this life together. It’s a journey where we can choose to help one another, if we can.”

Where to learn about prison ministry

• St. Andrew, Roanoke, Saturday, Sept. 28

• Jubilee House, Abingdon, Saturday, Sept. 28
(Attendees at the Abingdon meeting will watch speakers remotely from Roanoke in the morning before entering into their own breakout sessions that afternoon.)

• Holy Family, Virginia Beach, Saturday, Oct. 12

• St. Michael, Richmond, Saturday, Oct. 26

All meetings run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with sign-ins beginning at 8:30 a.m.

To register for events, please visit http://bit.ly/PrisonMinistrySummits. For more information call 804-622-5180