Prison Ministry Today: An Interview with Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty

Sr. Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, the Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Camden, took the time to answer five questions about her ministry. To learn more about her, check out this great interview from the National Catholic Reporter. To get involved in prison ministry, visit this diocesan website.

Why do you think the Church is called to be engaged in prison ministry?

A greater awareness of the injustice in our penal institutions is reaching high proportions due to social media outlets.  In turn, the sensitivity by the Church is heightened and the need to minister to this population is gaining strength.

Being a Franciscan, I often call to mind Francis of Assisi’s own conversion while imprisoned. During his incarceration, the emptiness of his youthful years became clear and a personal transformation took place.  This was the beginning of Francis’ outreach to all peoples … the poor, the lepers, the outcasts …

This same outreach is the challenge that Pope Francis gives to each of us.  How can we bring the Good News to our brothers and sisters in our jails and prisons?  How can we be instruments of Jesus’ love, mercy and forgiveness?  His promise to be with us always, in good times and not so good, should be a source of strength and peace that needs to permeate all ministries of the Church.

We live in a society that is about retribution and revenge.  Just watch the nightly news!  How can we assist in reconciling incarcerated men, women and children with themselves, their God and the members of society?  As a faith community, we need to be about restoration and reconciliation, affirming the God-given dignity in each person we encounter.

How would you describe the purpose of the ministry to someone who had never thought about it before?

The purpose of the ministry is often threefold – provide spiritual opportunities for the incarcerated that influence the rehabilitation process; reduce fear and restore a sense of security in the community; and extend a consciousness of understanding, compassion and healing to the victims.  We are progressing fairly well with programs and religious services to the imprisoned; however, there is a great need for outreach to members of the community and the victims/victims’ families.

Do you have any stories from your time in the ministry that have inspired you?

In general, the selflessness of the volunteers never ceases to amaze me.  The majority of these men and women have other commitments to family, work and themselves. But their availability, when needed, is commendable.  Each one, without exception, has shared with me how his/her life has changed since beginning this ministry to the incarcerated.  They give of themselves so freely!

However, there is one story that has touched my heart: Early on, I received a letter with a check enclosed to be sent to a specified local parish as his monthly tithing.*  This was not his former parish, rather, it is the parish of the victim (a staff member) whom he killed in a drug-related car accident.  It was his small way of making amends to all those whose lives in the parish were touched by this horrific incident – the loss of a beloved staff member by his act of selfishness.  As Pope Francis says – “Who are we to judge?”

*Working for $.25 an hour is how he is able to accumulate money for his monthly tithing.

What challenging social issues connected to our criminal justice system have you learned about since starting your ministry?

All Catholic social teaching begins with the fundamental principle of the defense of human life and dignity.  From our earliest learning, we were made aware that every human person is created in the image and likeness of God with dignity, value and worth, regardless of race, creed, gender, nationality, class or any other human characteristics.

So how can we supplement the penal system to provide justice to these inmates?  They are entitled to food, clothing, shelter, personal safety, timely medical care, as well as opportunities for work and education in order to maintain their human dignity.  “…none of us is the sum total of the worst act we have committed … As a people of faith, we believe that grace can transform even the most hardened and cruel human beings.”  (See Origins 29:17 – pp. 261-266.)

The Preferential Option for the Poor and Vulnerable is also a principle of Catholic social teaching to which I have always had a deep commitment.  However, to look at this principle through the eyes of those affected by the lack of adequate resources from early life – children who are hungry, abused (mentally, emotionally, physically), homeless etc. – often end up living lives of crime due to the impact of their upbringing.

Serving here in Camden, one of the most dangerous cities in the US and claiming the highest violent crime rate in the State of New Jersey, I am aware that more than ever of the necessity for the presence of the Church in prison ministry to address the basics of the people through pastoral care, advocacy and charity, as well as those affected by these conditions. This is a mandate for the Church given in Matthew 25 … for the incarcerated, their families and their victims.

How can parishioners here in the diocese get involved in prison ministry efforts? Are there multiple ways for them to serve?

There are many opportunities for parishioners in the diocese to get involved.  Some people may be open to give direct service, while others may prefer to minister outside the jail/prison.

For the first group, after becoming approved for a particular institution, the following are areas that need assistance: sacramental preparation, scripture reflection, Bible study, small group facilitation, values discussion and mentoring, to name a few.

For those who would prefer indirect service, possibilities are prayer ministry, making rosary beads, victim support, legislative advocacy and letter writing. The qualification are simple … Anyone who can see God in the faces of the women/men whom he/she would encounter and has an open, non-judgmental posture would be a candidate for prison ministry.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries. To get involved in prison ministry for the Diocese of Camden, visit this diocesan website.