By Jennifer Rogers
When I started attending Mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus in Lacombe, Louisiana in 2018, I was an outsider. I was not Catholic; I was not local to this small bayou community; and I did not know a single person the first time I walked in the door. But a warm, funny, older couple “adopted” me on the spot as we sat together on the back row, and they later agreed to be my godparents at my baptism the following year after my RCIA classes.
I already had a lot of experience volunteering with incarcerated youth in Texas, and I was hoping to get involved in jail or prison ministry again. But as a newcomer to the parish, I wanted to move carefully. I started by asking open-ended questions of our community leaders and elders about what the parish needed, and working with our clergy to discern how we might serve those needs identified by our congregation.
Out of those conversations, eventually we started the jail and prison outreach and re-entry program that we call the “Welcome Home” ministry. My prior volunteer experience was as a lone wolf, long before I was ever involved in any church community, so I had never been involved in a parish-based effort.
Our parish is small, rural, and predominantly comprised of families who are African-American, Creole, and Native American, going back hundreds of years in this community near Lake Pontchartrain (immediately north of New Orleans).
Everyone knows each other in this close-knit community, but there’s limited job opportunity or modernization in Lacombe, so the drug trade too often becomes a way to earn money on the side. As a result, mass incarceration is a real problem in our community, and our local families are broken up in a system that never gets to the heart of the problem.
We decided to focus on incarcerated folks from our own community, with the goal to bridge the gap between jail/prison walls and our own church walls. Before Thanksgiving 2019, we invited parishioners to sign up any incarcerated loved ones to receive a Christmas card from the new ministry. Next, we asked the men who received cards if they wanted to be part of the new ministry, because it was important that everyone feel they had agency in their participation. After getting the proper credentials from the local jail, we were up and running with weekly visits, and I was thrilled to learn the ropes with this particular jail so that we could start adding other volunteers. For the incarcerated loved ones at state prison facilities, our ongoing contact was limited to regular mail given the geographic distance involved, but at least we had weekly visits at the local jail.
Then COVID-19 happened. In-person visits came to an immediate halt, and it made no sense to recruit new volunteers if no one could get new credentials. To keep the weekly contact going, we were blessed to receive a grant and private donations to cover the jail’s fees for video and messaging technology. That is how we still run the ministry, until in-person visits are allowed again.
We also decided to start a quarterly newsletter called “The Good News,” in which the parish’s incarcerated loved ones offer reflections to share with the community. Gathering their reflections and coordinating the circulation of the newsletter has given us all an opportunity to work together beyond jail/prison walls and church walls, and we are grateful to have found ways to keep the ministry going through the pandemic.
In much of the country, jail populations are mostly transient, but in our location, a lot of people are there for several months or years. Some are pre-trial, and bond has been set higher than they can afford. Others have already been convicted but remain at the jail because state prisons lack capacity, so the jail has an agreement to house them. In either case, the jail ministry provides outreach to incarcerated loved ones from our community, wherever they might be housed at any given time.
As our incarcerated loved ones return home to us (beginning this summer for some of them), we plan to coordinate their return with Catholic Charities and other related service partners who might be able to offer programs and services that our parish might not be able to provide directly.
When I volunteer at the state women’s prison with a different Christian organization (which I also love!), I gladly work with anyone I encounter there, and it never matters where they’re from. This parish-based ministry, however, has its roots in the needs of this particular community. This is why anyone starting a new jail or prison ministry in their parish should start by asking questions, not making assumptions. People generally assume that it’s other groups who have needs, but there might be an internal need that is ripe for community-building in one’s own parish.
Jennifer Rogers is a volunteer member of NACC working toward her chaplaincy certification after completing her Master’s in Pastoral Studies at Loyola University New Orleans in 2020.