JustFaith in jail

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Article Social Justice
Not all JustFaith groups meet in parish meeting rooms. One allows inmates to deepen their faith and serve their community behind bars. 

Eleven men sit in a circle on church pews that they have pulled close together in the cool and peacefully quiet chapel. They listen intently as soft-spoken members of the group discuss the plans for their day-long retreat.

This could have been any JustFaith group, coming together to understand how they could make a difference in the world today by studying the principles of Catholic social teaching. But this JustFaith group is different; it is the only group that has been formed in a state prison—Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the largest maximum-security state prison in the United States. Called "Angola" for short, the prison is located on 18,000 acres at the dead end of a two-lane state highway, surrounded on three sides by the Mississippi River.

These men, and four others who could not attend the retreat during the first month of their JustFaith journey, are of many faiths and no faith. They meet because they want to be better men in their own world—the jail.

Usually JustFaith participants at Angola come from the outside. Many JustFaith groups visit the prison for a "border crossing" experience, a central component to JustFaith in which participants experience the issues they have been reading and praying about. Those visiting Angola come to learn what it is like to live behind bars, knowing you will never again live outside the bars and barbed-wire fences.

During one "border crossing" experience, the idea of forming a JustFaith group at the prison surfaced. Prison ministers supported the idea, knowing from past experience teaching everything from sacramental preparation to college-level courses in theology that some of the inmates were eager to learn more about faith.

With a strong commitment to prison ministry among Baton Rouge Catholics, including Bishop Robert W. Muenh, prison officials and the JustFaith Ministries agreed to start the program at Angola, though not all participants are Catholic.

Participants were specially selected for the 32-week journey, mostly from an ecumenical Bible study group led by Rev. Reginald Watts, who became a Protestant minister while in jail. Rather than worrying about what religious services people attend, co-leader and fellow prisoner William Silva says he focuses on people’s good hearts.

"JustFaith takes us out of our comfort zone," Silva says. Learning about sacred listening has "given us a love and appreciation for each other, our families, and our loved ones," he adds.

While reading and discussing the JustFaith material about people starving because they had no food, Silva comments that he felt guilty about the times he wasted food.

Many of the men say they thought JustFaith was going to be just another academic course, but they are happy that it is giving them a greater opportunity to "be comfortable with each other" and those they live with in the prison dorms.

Though the program is still in its first months, they say they are not as judgmental as they once were. "We know what we are supposed to be doing. If we are looking to grow we have to do what God says to do," says Watts.

Most of the men say JustFaith is helping them, giving them the strength they need on their journey with God. They have also found a way to serve the wider community.

For their first border crossing, they met with the St. Jean Vianney Church JustFaith community. The groups discussed the similarities and differences of their lives, realizing in the end that there are many things in life that can make you a prisoner, not just prison bars. There is much that people can learn from each other, even if some live in the outside world and others simply long to be there.

This article appeared in the June 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 6, page 25).