Prison ministry is about “resurrection,” said Dale Recinella, keynote speaker at the seventh annual “Reaching Individuals Behind and Beyond Bars” Conference.
The conference, held March 6 at Hotel Louisville on West Broadway, drew about 200 lay people, religious sisters and members of the clergy.
The conference is sponsored by Catholic Charities of Louisville, Mission Behind Bars and Beyond and the National Benevolent Association. It aimed to shed light on issues related to incarceration, focusing on the challenges of re-entering the community as well as helping people learn how to advocate for inmates.
Recinella, a Catholic who ministers to inmates on death row in Florida, described the release of a prisoner — who has fulfilled his or her sentence — as a “resurrection.”
“It’s the resurrection here and now in our midst. It’s what we do,” said Recinella. “We need to help and support each other because it gets hard when it seems there’s a massive stone in front of the tomb and nobody is going to get out.”
Acknowledging the people serving in this ministry, he said, “It’s a marvelous thing you are doing to bring our brothers and sisters home from behind bars and walls,” he said.
Recinella and his wife Dr. Susan Recinella have ministered to Florida’s death row inmates and provided support to their families for more than 20 years, he said. The couple recently received permission from the state of Florida to minister to female death row inmates.
In preparation for accompanying prisoners, Recinella recommended ministers concentrate on two areas of formation.
“All of us in this work must discipline ourselves to a dual formation,” he said. “We have a duty to arm ourselves with the knowledge, skills and understanding to relieve human suffering in a competent manner.”
Prison ministers must become better informed about trauma and its effects, he said.
“In the field of re-entry, trauma is everywhere … It’s in childhood and pre-birth, it’s in the family home, it’s in upbringing and the foster care system, it’s in the juvenile and early adult offender system and in the adult offender system,” he said.
The second part of that formation, he said, is the responsibility of ministers to care for themselves spiritually. Those who serve in this ministry must also be aware of their own “wounds and trauma” so they can respond compassionately to those they serve, he said.
Recinella noted that compassion means “to suffer with.”
“We suffer with the people God puts in our path for us to care for as though they are Jesus,” he said.
“It’s the work of Simon of Cyrene in the passion of Jesus Christ. Simon helps Jesus carry the load of the cross to Calvary,” he said. “And if those we serve are the face of Jesus in our midst, and Jesus says they are, then we are to help them carry their cross, which is his cross. We are the Simon of Cyrene for the ‘Jesus’ in re-entry and we must do our work to bear up their suffering.”
In the Archdiocese of Louisville much is being done to help carry the cross of the incarcerated and those re-entering society.
Deacon Stephen Marks, a permanent deacon at St. Alber the Great Church, leads a group of lay individuals and religious sisters who offer weekly Communion services to about 150 men and women in the Louisville Metro Department of Corrections. There are also priests who hear confession when it’s requested by inmates.
Others work with men and women who are re-entering society.
In addition, some are working to improve the criminal justice system. The Kentucky Criminal Justice Forum, a fairly new ministry, seeks to understand the needs of individuals re-entering society and share those needs with local and state legislators.
KCJF was created two years ago by Deacon Keith McKenzie, a deacon assigned to St. Augustine Church, and Deacon Lucio Caruso, director of mission and identity for Catholic Charities of Louisville.
KCJF’s mission is to start a “state-wide conversation” about the issues affecting Kentucky’s criminal justice system and the individuals caught in that system, said Deacon McKenzie during a recent interview.
KCJF organizes panel discussions that bring together state and local legislators, individuals who work in the criminal justice system, individuals who’d been incarcerated and family members of incarcerated people. Together they discuss issues such as re-entry, diversion and sentencing reform.
Deacon McKenzie said KCJF partners with Dr. Stephanie Grace Post, an assistant professor at the University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work to compile and analyze the information and to make it available to state and local legislators. KCJF has held two panel discussions and the next is set for May 8 in Berea, Ky.
Deacon McKenzie said ultimately he hopes these efforts will affect legislation that impacts incarcerated men and women.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” said Deacon McKenzie. “It can be daunting, but I plan to stay at it.”
To get involved, contact Deacon Marks at 964-6966 or Cheri Hall, coordinator of prison, jail and re-entry ministries for Catholic Charities of Louisville, at firstname.lastname@example.org.