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An Old Way Becomes the New Way of our Jail Ministry

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By Crystal Catalan 

In this challenging time of COVID-19, individuals within our communities, schools, churches, and ministries have all had to adjust to this new reality that we are collectively experiencing. It looks different for everyone – the virus does not discriminate. 

As one of the jail ministers in the Diocese of San Jose, I can’t help but also think about our incarcerated brothers and sisters who are behind bars – always in isolation, but now even without visitors.  

Before this pandemic, I would make one or two visits a month to our local jail and lead bible studies, bring communion to the inmates, and spend time with them in prayer and faith-sharing. Many of the inmates hardly received any visitors in the first place, and indeed this was a space for tears, laughter, and responses to the question, “Where did you see God this week?” Now, without being able to visit these brothers and sisters of mine, I find myself in prayer with them, through a new way. A new way for me, that is, but one that has been used for many centuries to send love, show care and share our faith: letter-writing

When it was clear that our visits to the jail would be put on pause due to the shelter-in-place ordinance, as well as for the health and safety of all involved, we were saddened. But soon after, Leland Campbell, Director of Restorative Justice let us know of an opportunity to continue to be present with the inmates. We would write letters to our units – keeping them brief, letting them know we are praying for them, and providing any type of consolation in this extra difficult time. I was excited and I eagerly started hand-writing letters to the units I would frequently visit. This was an opportunity for me to pray with and for the inmates, and let them know they are not alone at this time. Something I would also remind them during each of my visits as well.  

Little did I know that in the process of writing these letters, I would also find my faith strengthen. You see, when I visit the jail and communicate with the inmates face to face, the feedback on what we say to each other is immediate. It is clearly a two-way communication. However, now that we are writing letters, we send them to a specific unit addressed to nobody in particular; we are simply writing to another human being made, like us, in the likeness and image of God. We never know who received it or whether our letters helped them get through their day. There is no writing back either, and so we must trust with all our heart that the Holy Spirit is in the midst of it, distributing those letters to those who need it most. 

As Catholics, we are called to solidarity and also to recognize and respect the inherent dignity of each human person – those who are victims, those who are offenders, those who are incarcerated, and our community members who are in the margins. Though we are all physically distant at this time and though our ministries may look different, I have faith that God is present, and that the Holy Spirit will continue to join our hearts with one another in prayer, as one human family.