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‘Real’ Prison Ministry Training Inspires, Instructs
By Amanda Hudson, News editor, The Observer
November 9, 2012

ROCKFORD—“The first time, I think ‘This is not for me,’” said Deacon Ignacio Badillo as he described his first ministry visit to the Winnebago County Jail nearly three years ago.

Deacon Richard Martin (center), who, with his wife, Linda, oversees diocesan jail ministry efforts, leads a training session, Nov. 3, in Rockford. (Observer photo by Amanda Hudson)

But he returned for a second visit, and now he can say, “I like it, going there to support those people, (but) it is hard to do. They want to talk to me, (and I) just listen, and I can see how they need God (and are) hungry” for Him.

Deacon Badillo was one of about 20 men and women who gathered on Nov. 3 at St. Rita Parish to learn and help plan ways to increase the Catholic presence in jail ministry in the Diocese of Rockford. The training was presented by Deacon Richard Martin and his wife, Linda, who oversee diocesan jail ministry efforts.

“You never give up on people,” Deacon Martin said, speaking from his personal prison experience as well as his ministry experience, which includes establishing  (Restoring Inmates to American Society) Ministry in the Aurora area.

To help show the potential impact of prison ministry, the Martins showed part of a video featuring one of their clients, Michael, who discovered “a whole new world” when released after 23 years in prison.

“I was left so far behind in life,” Michael said in the video, explaining that he tried to benefit from release programs and to find work, without success. RITAS Ministry, he said, didn’t look at just “the jail-part of me … when I got done talking with Linda (Martin) and (staff member) Pam, I felt like a human being.”

Michael is doing well today, the Martins agreed. Spiritual goals for prison ministry, they added, include sharing the unconditional love of God, teaching new believers how to study the Bible, demonstrating the power of prayer and teaching inmates how to pray.

It is a ministry that can tug at a variety of hearts. The Nov. 3 training welcomed people who had no previous experience in ministering to prisoners and others who had a wide range of experience.

For example, Samuel Ayala of Church of Holy Apostles in McHenry said he only has visited friends in jail, and Gary Heidenreich of St. Rita Parish in Rockford just recently made his first visit to the Winnebago County Jail. Kris Mimier of St. Rita’s said she had been “blessed to be under Laura’s wing” through four Bible study jail visits, referring to Laura Ortiz, a five-year jail ministry volunteer, who was sitting behind her.

Nancy Daumke of St. Mary Parish in Huntley described her 25 years in prison ministry in DuPage County, while Deacon Steve Pospischil of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Freeport said he served in prison ministry in another state before moving to this diocese. Jose Barranco of St. Thomas Parish in Crystal Lake described himself being “very happy” in his two years of the “very necessary” ministry, while Gregprio Zepeda, also from St. Thomas, said that after three years of jail ministry he sometimes finds it to be depressing.

Jim Brooke of St. Rita Parish, Rockford, has worked many years in the Kairos Prison Ministry. Father David Peck and Father Dariusz Barna described their service, past and present, bringing the sacraments to prisoners in Rockford and in the Fox Valley.

Both Deacon Martin and Jason Viveros provided personal witness about the boredom and other challenges faced by prisoners and how God can work on them during and after their time in prison. Deacon Martin shared that “God hit me between the eyes” on a Cursillo retreat weekend after his incarceration, eventually bringing him to the diaconate to specialize in prison ministry.

“I just wanted to get out of my cell,” Viveros said of his motivation to attend a Christian group during his past imprisonment. There he heard testimonies of the power of Christ from “tattooed Mexican Mafia.”

“God sent them to me,” Viveros said. “They had Jesus, man, they had a glow about them … I want to do something like that, if I can.”

Whether volunteers come to the ministry with personal experience or simply a heart for Christ and those who need him, “Prisons meet the criteria of any mission field: Lost people and a need for laborers,” the Martins said.

Personal qualities needed for the ministry include consistency and dependability, having a humble spirit and being able to be a non-judgmental example of Christianity.

A “holier than thou” attitude is not helpful, the Martins said.

It is, they acknowledged, a difficult ministry.

“You are going into the pits, going into the system,” Linda said. “There are evil people in prison, but there are a lot of good people who made bad choices. Don’t be judgmental … listen (to them).

“A lot of times, there’s nothing we can say to them,” Deacon Martin said. “They want somebody to listen to them (and that) helps them carry the burden, even though there is nothing you can say.”

“Most importantly, be prayerful,” Linda concluded. “Make sure your heart is where it is supposed to be. You are going to be blessed (in this ministry). A lot.”

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