In My Weakness is My Strength: Answering the Call to Prison Ministry

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by Jessica Rinaudo

God often calls us to serve in unexpected ways. We resist, shrug it off, tell God that it’s too hard, but the Lord can be persistent and surprising. It can be especially challenging to answer the call to service when that service is something as intimidating as prison ministry.

Deacon Burt Ainsworth was introduced to prison ministry by Fr. Richard Pusch, an Air Force priest.  “Fr. Pusch was like a brother to me. Over the years, I started going to the prisons with him. When he died, I made a commitment that I would follow him as much as I possibly could,” said Deacon Burt.

The diaconate and the Air Force pulled Deacon Burt away from prison ministry for a time, but after retirement, he pursued it again. One evening, prison minister Holly Wilson invited Deacon Burt to join her at David Wade Correctional Center. That evening, after Bible study was over, Holly surprised everyone, including Deacon Burt, by announcing that she was retiring from prison ministry and he would be taking over.

“Lord, you know I can’t do this by myself,” said Deacon Burt. “Please, if it’s possible, send me some help.”

Van Sanders was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico when the Lord started tugging at him. His wife was very involved with prison ministry and wanted him to join her, but he wasn’t ready. Then one day Van’s priest, Fr. Doug Mitchell, spoke to him after reconciliation, “Out of the blue, he said, ‘Have you ever thought about prison ministry?’” Van recalled.

Fr. Mitchell’s invitation put Van on the path to prison ministry. He first visited a prison geriatric unit, and then became part of “Encounter,” a weekend-long faith event for men in jail.

Van, born in New York, eventually moved to Louisiana to be near his wife’s family. As a member of Our Lady of the Blessed Sacrament Parish in Shreveport, Van received an email from his deacon asking if he might be interested in helping Deacon Burt Ainsworth with prison ministry.

And just like that, Deacon Burt’s prayers for help were answered by way of Van Sanders. Now the two of them, along with Mary Morgan and Chris Leach, work together to serve the men of David Wade Correctional Center. Both Deacon Burt and Van see themselves as instruments of the Lord, insisting that the important part of prison ministry is allowing Christian men to come together inside the walls.
Every Wednesday, Deacon Burt and Van travel to David Wade to lead Bible study or assist with Mass.

Prison Ministers Van Sanders and Deacon Burt Ainsworth

“When we started out about a year ago, we had about five or six guys in the class,” said Deacon Burt. “Now we’re up to just under 20. We talk about how the Gospel of John affects our lives, and how it talks to them especially… It’s their conversation. We’re not trying to put anything into them. What’s there, we’re trying to draw it out.”

Van added, “Sitting in the classroom, it’s not just Catholic men. … So the men have these books they can study. When they come in, they’re primed and ready to go. We sit, and we talk. … We don’t always have the ready answers, so sometimes lessons last three or four weeks. Deacon asks them, on occasion, to write prayers, which is really good because that’s another way of developing them as men. They also have prayer cards and prayer requests. We bring the prayer requests out and put them on the altar.”

Deacon Burt emphasized that recruiting men to join them in Bible study is extremely difficult.  “This is something that’s very important for people on the outside to understand. Why can’t you get more people involved in prison ministry? It’s because for those who don’t believe in the Gospel, who don’t believe in Christ, they see these guys as weak, so the men who attend Bible study get picked on tremendously. … They really put up with a lot just to come to this class.”

“We tell them, you’re a Christian community,” added Van. “As a Christian community your job is to evangelize the other 1,200 men in this compound. And the prisoners say, ‘They look at us as being weak.’ I said, ‘Remember what Paul says, ‘in my weakness is my strength,’ so you just keep doing what you’re doing.’”

Deacon Burt and Van have met many men who have done terrible things over the course of their service in prison ministry. If it seems like it would be difficult to minister to these men, it’s even harder for the prisoners to allow themselves to be seen as worthy of forgiveness.

Van shared a story that has stuck with him that is especially relevant and powerful during the Lenten and Easter season.

“During Lent, in New Mexico, we would always show The Passion of the Christ, and there’s a scene in it where Jesus is all chained up, and he’s walking up the steps with two guards on both sides. And when we were inside the prison chapel doing the lessons, you could look out the chapel windows and see the men in yellow, the men in segregation. And as they moved, they always had to have the belly chains, the ankle chains, the wrist chains. They were all chained up. And I would tell the men, ‘Look outside the window, because remember we’re all made in the image of God, now look at that man, look at all those people around him. Who does that remind you of?’ Some would guess, some wouldn’t know, but one would always say, ‘That’s Jesus.’ That’s exactly how Jesus was presented to Pilate. Remember one thing: Jesus has so much in common with you and you have so much in common with him. Yes, he did not sin, but we do and we did. Remember that he knows your pain and when you think of your mother, remember the Blessed Mother knows what it’s like to have a son on death row.’”

“You begin to realize that yes, they’ve committed crimes and they’ve done some things that are bad,” said Van, “but God forgives them. All they have to do is ask for that forgiveness.”

But going inside the walls of a prison and working directly with those inside is not everyone’s calling. Van shared a story of ways other ministries help prisoners’ families.

Deacon Burt Ainsworth greets a prisoner at David Wade Correctional Center during an Advent dinner at the prison hosted by St. Jude Parish.

“One time I was doing prison ministry and also working with St. Vincent de Paul. … Then we had an Encounter weekend and one man had a really hard story to tell. He told his story. And then on that Saturday night, he broke down and started crying. He asked, ‘Is there anyone here who works with St. Vincent de Paul?’ And there were three of us… And he said, ‘I especially want to thank you guys because of what you did for my family. You didn’t know me, and I didn’t know you, but you helped my family survive while I’m in here.’”

Van later added, “A lot of times there are men and women who leave their family because they are incarcerated and the family does time with the men or the women who are in prison. And so, it’s like when they get locked up, the family gets locked up. And if the one who gets locked up is the breadwinner, then the family is going to struggle. And that’s where St. Vincent de Paul can come in and they can find those people who have someone that’s incarcerated and they can help that particular family.”

Deacon Burt added that when men get ready to leave prison, often the only clothing available to them is whatever they had on when they entered jail. – usually it’s a sweat suit or an old pair of jeans. There is a real need for decent clothing. Recently Catholic Charities provided clothing to David Wade including sports coats, slacks, dress shirts and shoes. Because men re-entering society are required by law to have a permanent residence and a job, these clothes go a long way in helping men prepare for a new life. Consider donating these types of clothing items to Catholic Charities.

By listening to God’s plan for their lives, Deacon Burt and Van have not only helped those inside prison walls, but have been transformed and challenged in their own spiritual lives.

“Some of the prisoners come at us really hard because we’re Catholic, but what’s amazing is that when they come at you, you have to be able to look at them say, ‘I understand what you’re saying, but look in the mirror, because guess what? When you look in that mirror and see your image there, remember that’s the image of God, because you’re made in His image and He loves you. He loves you with all His heart, no matter what you do. If you come to Him seven million times asking for forgiveness, He’s going to forgive you seven million times.’”

There are many ways to answer a call to prison ministry – whether it’s inside or outside the walls. Talk to your parish priest or deacon, or contact Deacon Burt Ainsworth at deaconbainsworth@gmail.com, Van Sanders at saintdismas2@gmail.com, or Deacon Clary Nash at cnash@dioshpt.org.  •

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