Prison Ministry: From Convict to the Diaconate
In and out of juvenile corrections for drugs, violent behavior, and theft, Kevin Stadther, only 19, was serving time in federal prison for unarmed bank robbery. He thought prison was what he deserved — and where he belonged.
Feelings of rage had been brewing in Stadther’s life for a long time, and he had been acting out his anger since he was a young boy. A series of horrible events happened in his life to make him think that God didn’t care about him.
“At 7 years old, I was thinking, Why would God allow this to happen to me? What’s wrong with me? I had always had it in my mind that God had a special purpose for my life, but now I thought maybe God’s plan wasn’t something good, but something bad.”
He thought God made him evil, so he was going to be evil.
“I started to find some identity in that,” says Stadther, 39, from the Boise, Idaho, area. “I looked at all the crimes and sins as a checklist. [I thought], I am going to do all of these things because you did this to me, God. By the time I was done, there was almost nothing I hadn’t done.”
The day St. Paul became a kindred spirit
From prison Stadther kept hearing from his parents that people were praying for him, so he began researching a way to ward off the effects of prayers in witchcraft books he found in the prison library.
“I was on my way to the chapel to perform the prayer-blocking ritual,” Stadther says. “There was a group of Christian inmates in the chapel, and they said, ‘Hey, Kevin, can we pray over you?’ I thought, Whatever, I am about to do something that will block all of that. Most of them were evangelical Christians, but one guy was Catholic. He was the one who placed his hands on me and began praying for me.”
Bam! As soon as the inmate laid hands on Stadther, he unexpectedly fell to the ground. “The Holy Spirit came upon me. At that moment, I felt God interiorly speaking to me. God told me, ‘This is not your life; this is not the life I have for you.’ I changed just like that. I always compare myself to Paul [on] the road to Damascus on the way to persecute Christians. I was literally on my way to do something against God.”
That life-altering event made Stadther realize that he had a choice of who he was going to be. In 2001, after 44 months in federal prison, he was released. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in accounting, marry his wife, Cindy, in 2002, become a father to six children, and enter the Catholic Church in 2009. In 2013 he entered the diaconate program; his ordination is slated for Oct. 28, 2017, the Feast of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. Stadther will serve as a permanent deacon at St. Paul’s Catholic Church in Nampa, Idaho.
For the past eight years, Stadther has been volunteering in Catholic prison ministry at the Idaho Juvenile Corrections Center in Nampa, Idaho, a prison for teens who have committed serious crimes. He ministers two to three times a month to both male and female inmates.
“The teens that I see, they tell me that it makes a difference to see me and to hear my story because they get people coming to talk to them but none of them have lived through what they have,” he explains. “Visiting [with them] helps me deal with my past. It wasn’t for nothing. There was a purpose. If I hadn’t gone through that, I wouldn’t have been able to make a difference.”
What prisoners need
Many prison ministries are in dire need of volunteers.
“Volunteers, yes — but the right volunteers,” says Stadther. “I think that the incarcerated tend to see through people very easily, so if somebody is not genuine, it comes through and turns people off. Compassion is the key, which is different than pity. If volunteers go out there because they feel sorry for them, then that is not what we need. Understanding that any of us could end up in that situation allows us to relate to them in a personal way without judgment.”
Fr. Philip Luebbert, a priest in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph (Missouri), volunteers weekly at Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Missouri.
“The prisoners need to be treated with respect and human dignity by volunteers from the outside to help restore their sense of worth. Some of the maximum security inmates have committed serious crimes — some of the worst ones that we think of — therefore, many of them have a lot of mental pain from guilt. They most need to be reassured that God can forgive you no matter how bad your sins are, and weekly Communion is by far the best medicine.”
Stadther stresses that community support and awareness is crucial.
“There’s a separation that exists in the mind of the community that makes convicts into perpetual outcasts. We need an understanding that these people are part of our community. They’re our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters.”
Dale S. Recinella, who has been a Catholic prison chaplain for Florida’s death row and solitary confinement for 19 years and in prison ministry for 26 years, told Catholic Digest, “What prisoners need is to know that God has not thrown them away. That message is best delivered by brothers and sisters who make the time to come inside, or to write, and to say, ‘I want you to know that your life is valuable.’”
Many ways to become involved in prison ministry
“The picture is much bigger than just going inside the prison fence,” explains Recinella, author of When We Visit Jesus in Prison: A Guide for Catholic Ministry (ACTA Publications, 2016). He offers these five ways to help:
1. Minister behind the fence. For those who feel called to administer directly to prisoners, there are many different types of prisons that need ministry, such as juvenile, psychiatric, military, federal, and state. There are also local jails where inmates are awaiting court proceedings, serving lesser sentences, or are awaiting transfer to a prison. Contact your diocese to see how you can become involved.
2. Be a pen pal/spiritual mentor to an inmate. There’s a tremendous need for people who can write inmates letters that deal with spiritual matters. Look to your diocese for guidelines on how to do it safely.
3. Minister on the outside. Start a parish outreach to provide spiritual and emotional support to families of murder victims, crime victims and their families, and families who have a loved one in prison or jail. “Families with loved ones in prison are peppered throughout the pews in all the parishes. They usually don’t self-identify because they don’t want to be ostracized or rejected,” Recinella says.
4. Pray for prison workers. The people who work in the prison system (the guards, medical staff, and mental health staff) are also in need of support. Have regular prayers said for them and include them in the intentions at Mass.
5. Pray for the incarcerated. “Thérèse of Lisieux is the patron saint of the missions; and she never left the convent, but she prayed, and she offered her suffering, challenges, hurts, and her Eucharist for the success of the missions. All of us can be patrons of prison ministry when we cannot go ourselves by modeling St. Thérèse,” Recinella says.
Those five suggestions for helping are not just for the laity. Fr. Luebbert encourages priests to give prison ministry a try.
“It is probably on the lowest rung of the ladder of ministries we consider desirable, yet in the spiritual sense, it is most rewarding: ‘When I was in prison you visited me.’ After a few visits you grow in the realization that [you] have some responsibility for the spiritual well-being of these inmates. If you don’t, who will?”
‘I knew you’d come!’
Dale Recinella saw such a great need for administering to inmates that he gave up practicing law in 1998 to become a full-time volunteer until early 2016.
In 1992, while still practicing law part time, he spent half of his time doing prison ministry, which entailed one-hour prayer appointments with male inmates.
“It was particularly difficult one day to get to the prison because I was handling a deal that was being offered on Wall Street, and there were a lot of problems. I had been in the office since 4 a.m. jamming papers in the fax machine to send to New York,” he recalls.
Recinella was already late for his first appointment of the day, a 20-something inmate who was serving a potential life sentence for murder. Fifteen years old and high on drugs at the time, the teen didn’t even remember committing the crime.
That busy morning, Recinella contemplated his involvement in prison ministry. People had been asking him, “What are you doing spending your time going to a prison to pray with murderers? What is this accomplishing?”
Recinella called and told the prison that he would be late, but no one had given the word to the men lined up outside the chapel waiting for him.
“It was pouring rain, and when I finally got to the prison after driving an hour, I was not in a good mood because I knew the men I was supposed to pray with would have gone back to their dorms and my going there would be useless.”
Grumbling to himself as he made his way to the chapel in the prison yard, Recinella noticed a pile of soaking-wet blue clothing in a clump on the prison yard ground.
“I realized that it was the fella that had my nine o’clock appointment,” Recinella says. “I asked, ‘What are you doing?’ At the sound of my voice, he jumped up, and wrapped his arms around my neck, and he wailed, ‘Brother Dale, Brother Dale, I knew you’d come! It’s been the worst week I have ever had since I came here, and knew that I couldn’t make it one more day unless I saw you.’”
At that moment, the future Catholic chaplain heard God speak to him in his thoughts: Who would be here hugging this man right now if you weren’t here? No one had come to see this man in prison or to minister to him before “Brother Dale,” as the inmates dubbed him.
Recinella explains, “From that point on, I know that when I step into a prison, I am doing the things that need to be done, even more than the big deals.” (The inmate in this story was ultimately released from prison. Recinella still talks to him weekly and visits him regularly.)
For more information about Recinella’s prison ministry, visit IWasInPrison.org.
Dismas Ministry (DismasMinistry.org), named after the good thief crucified with Jesus, is a national Catholic outreach organization that ministers to inmates and those affected by crime. Their mission is to provide prisoners with free Catholic Scripture, faith, and prayer resources. They also provide training resources for prison ministries.