Deacon Jim Hallman often tells a story in his homilies about the moment he knew he had found a calling in prison ministry.
He was in Bayside State Prison in Leesburg, one of the five correctional institutions located in Cumberland County, leading a Communion service for some of the inmates. He had noticed that every week one particular man always sat in the back of the room. When it came time for Communion, this man never received. But this particular day, a priest was hearing confessions during the service, and the man was first in line for the confessional.
“When he came out he was a different person. You could see the tears in his eyes,” Deacon Hallman said. When the time came, the man came up and received Communion. He then went back to his usual seat in the last row and started to cry.
“And when he cried he just said, ‘Lord, stay with me,’” Deacon Hallman said, tears in his own eyes at the memory. “All the prisoners who were there bowed their heads. And I said to myself, ‘Thank God I’m here.’ I’m feeding them, but they’re feeding me.”
Sister Mary Lou Lafferty, OSF, has been the Prison Ministry Coordinator for the Diocese of Camden through Catholic Charities for the last three years. She oversees all prison ministry volunteers and provides them with support and resources, while helping to recruit and place new volunteers.
Currently, 105 volunteers serve in eight of the nine correctional institutions located within the Diocese of Camden. They are priests, deacons and women religious, but the vast majority are laypeople, some 70 percent. They lead Bible studies and Communion services, administer sacraments and provide religious education.
“The volunteers are so self-giving,” Sister Lafferty said. “Once they have the experience they tell me they’re receiving more than they’re giving. It’s the gratitude of the men and women they’re serving, who realize that these volunteers do not look down on them. They see the face of Christ in the people that they serve, and likewise I think the prisoners see the face of Christ in these volunteers.”
Ann Smith and Michelle Budd sit outside the Camden County jail on a Thursday night, preparing for their reflection group with the jail’s female inmates. The two women have been coming to the jail once a week for three years. Their ministry is housed at Sacred Heart Church in Camden, which has an active men’s prison ministry during the day. Smith and Budd would like to see the women’s ministry at the parish grow.
“It’s really a ministry, a calling,” Smith said. “People say you’re crazy, but for me it fit. It has strengthened my personal walk with my God.”
Both Smith and Budd come from teaching backgrounds and Smith has training in the 12-steps method employed by Alcoholics Anonymous, a technique she weaves into all of their lessons. Smith says that most of the women she sees in the jail suffer from addictions.
Budd had volunteered in prisons before she joined Smith in the ministry to the Camden jail and said the experience surprised her. “It struck me how like me [the prisoners] were. There but for the grace of God. That really eliminated any fear I might have had about going in,” she said. “It’s just about being there for them, showing them somebody loves them for that little bit.”
“If it were my kids, I would want somebody to visit them and help them pray.”
For more information on prison ministry and how to become a volunteer, visit CatholicCharitiesCamden.org/Prison-Ministry.