By Alice Huth-Derrah
“In fidelity to the example of the Master, it is vitally important for the Church today to go forth and preach the Gospel to all: to all places, on all occasions, without hesitation, reluctance, or fear. The joy of the Gospel is for all people: no one can be excluded.” — Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 23.
Two men who now serve St. Elizabeth Seton’s parishioners, Father David (Parochial Administrator) and Deacon Sal Lema, were called to prison ministry. Serving in this capacity can be daunting, requiring special training, obtaining approval from correctional facilities, and making a commitment of time. But mostly it requires a true desire to meet people where they are in their lives literally and spiritually, without judgment.
During Father David’s second year as a seminarian in India, he began his prison ministry. For two years, beginning in 1987, every Sunday Father David jumped on his “bike and rode 6-7 miles” to a prison that housed about 2,000 inmates. The prisoners there had committed a variety of offenses, including violent crimes. In a common hall inside the prison, Father David helped “set-up for Mass inviting any inmate interested, Catholic and non-Catholic, all were welcome to attend services.” After the services, less violent offenders were allowed to remain in the hall making it possible for Father to assist them with their reading and help them with writing letters home to their families, as well as offer them counseling. Some inmates were considered so dangerous that Father could only talk with them “through the bars of their cell door.” During the holidays, Father David and his fellow seminarians collected money to purchase festive food for the inmates and did what they could to help the prisoners’ children by “buying them clothing and books.” Father smiles remembering that “the prisoners always made sure to be bathed and in clean clothing” for Sunday services, and “were very deserving…and always very happy to see us.”
After arriving in the United States, Father David was assigned to St. Gabriel’s in Scottsdale where he was once again called to prison ministry. He makes the approximate 35 mile drive to Perryville Prison, an all-female facility located in Goodyear, two times a month. Father says of ministering to prisoners, “Out of a humanitarian spirit, we go and meet with them, pray for them, console and be with them in their struggle.”
Deacon Sal became involved in prison ministry before beginning diaconate classes. “We were given a summer assignment,” Deacon explains, “to volunteer for a ministry.” He chose prison ministry and began his service at Cook County Maximum Security Prison in Illinois, which “housed inmates doing lengthy time for…high offense violent crimes,” including murder. He became so “engrossed in the ministry…that I served past the summer.” Deacon Sal worked alongside the prison chaplain trying to ensure the needs of the prisoners were being met, including seeing that the men received “packages…visits…or other privileges.” They also called upon the inmates in their cells to pray with them. Recalling his last night of service, Deacon Sal had entered the prison alone, which was unusual because he was always accompanied by the chaplain. He spent the evening sharing food and conversation in one of the inmates’ cells and then, as it was late, made his way to the prison gate. Due to a shift change the guard, unaware of Deacon Sal’s presence in the jail, remarked that “the men must have truly respected me” and could have “easily harmed me. I left that evening with a great respect for the inmates.”
In Hebrews 13:3 we are charged to “Be as mindful of prisoners as if you were sharing their imprisonment, and of the ill-treated as of yourselves, for you may yet suffer as they do.” Father David and Deacon Sal have embraced God’s edict with an open, generous, and fearless spirit, a reminder for us all of our duties to our brothers and sisters most in need.