Deacon candidates take their ministry behind bars to prisoners at the Lansing Correctional Facility
by Joe Bollig
LANSING — Everything about the Lansing Correctional Facility communicates the serious purpose of this place.
From the silent testimony of the weathered limestone structures and the watchful surveillance cameras, to the silvery metal fences topped with razor-wired fences, to the brooding watchtowers, this place is a grim testimony to a growth industry.
The facility, known until 1990 as the Kansas State Penitentiary, is the oldest and largest prison in Kansas. It houses more than 2,400 inmates — each with a story, a crime and a punishment.
And one more thing, too: a soul.
Prison is not a happy place, but it is not a place without hope, or even redemption.
And in recent months, the prison became a little more hopeful thanks to “the Lansing Six” — a group of permanent deacon candidates in their third year of formation for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas.
Between last October and Easter, “the Lansing Six” have formed remarkable relationships in faith with a group of maximum security inmates. Thanks to “the Lansing Six,” some of the inmates have become Catholic or have a renewed life of faith in Christ.
To the max
The threefold ministry of the deacon is this: word, sacrament and charity. Each man being prepared for ordination as a deacon must take on each of these roles.
In keeping with this necessary versatility, all 19 of the current deacon candidates are doing some sort of prison ministry this year as part of their pastoral ministry training.
Most are mentoring inmates preparing to reenter general society, and two are working with incarcerated youths.
But six deacon candidates thought there was a need to mentor inmates in a spiritual sense, so they proposed a 24-week program of Bible study and catechesis.
Prison officials approved the idea — and assigned the six to inmates in maximum security.
Although all were willing, some had concerns.
“I had extreme reservations,” said Steve White, a member of Curé of Ars Parish in Leawood. “The thought of it was scary and intimidating for me. I thought of those men as, frankly, violent and mean. I thought it would be a very difficult thing. It was way out my comfort zone, so I was not comfortable at all.”
Phillip Nguyen, a member of Holy Spirit Parish in Overland Park, was also a bit uncomfortable.
“To be honest with you, I was kind of surprised and, in a way, a little bit scared,” he said. “I’ve never been to a prison — in America, anyway. Years ago, my father was in a prison in Vietnam, for when we tried to escape. My father got caught by the communists and was put in a prison deep in the jungle, and my sister and I visited him. So I was a little bit scared. In the back of my mind, I thought prison is a tough place for tough people.”
But while some deacon candidates had reservations or simply didn’t know what to expect, others had a pretty good idea.
“I had no problem with it,” said John Stanley, from the Church of the Ascension Parish in Overland Park. “Probably why I’m the de facto leader [of ‘the Lansing Six’] is because I’ve had some experience [with incarcerated men] through the St. Dismas Prison Outreach, which is an archdiocesan-wide program. . . . I’ve had involvement in that for four years.”
Mike Moffitt, from St. Paul Parish in Olathe, also had a jump on the rest of the deacon candidates because of his background.
“Inmates are frequently negatively stereotyped,” said Moffitt. “Fortunately, I had previously worked 14 years at Osawatomie State Hospital, so I was accustomed to locked units. I was also the program director for one particular hospital unit that was designated for treatment for the criminally insane.”
“Because I had this past training, I realized that the men we were working with were just like me,” he continued. “We’ve all made mistakes . . . but we are still children of God and need to be treated with respect and dignity.”
Upper Room community
The deacon candidates received six hours of training from the coordinator of the mentor program about the “do’s and don’ts.”
“Interestingly, during our tour of the prison, maximum was on lockdown, so we didn’t get to see it,” said White.
The plan was for the deacon candidates to lead the sessions in rotation, two men to a session.
The space given to them was on the second floor of a building, which the deacon candidates dubbed “the Upper Room.” For lesson plans, they adapted ones created by White for high school level catechesis.
The classes were scheduled for Tuesdays, beginning at 6:45 p.m., and would last for 90 minutes. No guard would be in the room during the class.
“[Inmates] can only come if they’re on an approved list and have no demerits,” said Stanley.
And then, they met the inmates.
“Our very first night, we decided, ‘Let’s just go in there and give them our story of where we are,’” said White. “Everyone has things in their past they wish they hadn’t done.
“We were very open with them, and I think it helped them accept us — [that] we weren’t coming in there to judge them,” he continued. “We quickly developed a rapport with them, and we tried to be as loving and charitable and kind and accepting as we could toward them.”
Class size varied from five to 10 on any given night. The inmates range in age and are from diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds.
“The inmates’ religious backgrounds are also very diverse,” said Moffitt. “Several of the inmates are already baptized Catholics who simply want to grow in their faith. Others are baptized Christians who want to convert to Catholicism. Some are non-Christian who are simply interested in finding out more about religion in general.”
Sometimes, even the most tenuous link to faith can bring an inmate to class.
“The majority of them had some type of Catholic connection when they were younger,” said Joe Allen, a member of Prince of Peace Parish in Olathe. “One younger man’s grandmother was a good, devout Catholic. The only wholesome, pure thing he can remember [from his childhood] is his grandmother. So when he heard about the catechism class, he wanted to check it out, because it reminded him of his grandmother.”
The classes were held with the men sitting in a circle, with the deacon candidates leading them in prayer, offering instruction and taking part in Q&A dialogues.
“The first night, I was a little nervous,” said Allen. “But once I got there and met the guys, I realized they wanted to be there. They’re very interested in what we have to say. The stereotype is that these guys are threatening, but they’re very welcoming. They’re happy to see us there. They’re not used to people from the outside doing things for them.”
Hungry for God
Despite whatever earlier concerns they may have had, the deacon candidates found the inmates to be respectful, engaged and very hungry to learn more about God.
The inmates were sincere and wanted to grow deeper in faith. They wanted to change.
“They’re on the road to conversion,” said Chris Slater, a member of Prince of Peace Parish. “You can really see it in these guys. We don’t know what they’ve done — they’re in maximum security for a reason — but going from what life they had before and seeing where they are now is just a tremendous change.”
“They’re very caring for each other, they look out for each other,” he continued. “They desire to share God as much as they know already, and welcome everybody they know into their little community of Catholic prisoners.”
The inmates asked good questions and clearly weren’t there just to kill time.
“It has been beautiful to see how the group of men has grown in their knowledge about their faith and the reverence in which they attended class,” said Moffitt. “They made special arrangements to have a crucifix and holy water available for each class. As they enter the room, they dip their hands, make the sign of the cross and genuflect before the crucifix. Several men bring their rosaries to class, as well as their Catholic Bibles and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
Although the inmates don’t talk about their crimes — and the deacon candidates don’t ask them — the men are sincere in their remorse for their crimes. For most of them, their lives went off kilter during their high school years.
“The message I get from all of the guys is, ‘Gosh, if I had met you guys when I was younger and learned about the Catholic faith, I might have made better choices and not ended up here,’” said Allen.
The inmates told them that their Catholic faith helps them survive in prison, and they plan to keep building their faith when they get out, to “stay on the right path,” said Allen.
Being locked up, the inmates have no opportunity to go to an actual church, although Masses are said for them by the part-time Catholic chaplain, Father Roderic Giller, OSB.
Despite being unable to go to church, the inmates were able to have two beautiful prayer experiences that came close.
With the permission of the prison authorities, Father Roderic led an evening service that included the Stations of the Cross, Benediction and eucharistic adoration.
“To the best of my knowledge, this was the first time ever that this has occurred in the history of Lansing Correctional Facility,” said Moffitt.
The deacon candidates also held an evening of mental prayer. All the lights were turned down, and there were candles and Scripture meditations. There were a lot of tears during that time, said White.
The classes have been good for the inmates, but the deacon candidates have gotten a lot out of it as well. They walk away with a totally different view of inmates.
“I don’t see anger, I don’t see resentment, I don’t see men feeling sorry for themselves,” said Stanley. “I see men who are very happy that volunteers have taken the time to spend with them, and I see a genuine hunger to learn about their faith and to share. I share faith with them, and they share faith with me. There’s a fellowship aspect.
“It’s like going to a men’s group, only this one happens to be in Lansing prison.”
As much as the prisoners have been changed by the experience, the experience changed the deacon candidates, too.
“This has really opened my eyes to the depth of need [in prison],” said Slater.
“It impacted me in many ways,” said Nguyen. “I understand the diaconate to be service. Regardless of who you serve, you have to serve with a sincere heart and love. This prison ministry has given me a chance to really come close to the prisoners, who need a lot of love and guidance. It was very fulfilling in the way of service. We are servants — serving men and serving God.”
For some of the men, the experience has been a signpost in their vocational discernment.
“It has totally reinforced my calling,” said Allen. “I feel called to the diaconate and to serve the people of the archdiocese, and that includes the people in the prisons.
“As deacons, we will serve those who no one thinks about. Think about the poor and lowly, the outcast. Here in our parishes, many sign up . . . to do great work, but few think of serving in prisons. This has been very rewarding.
“When I leave the classes, I realize I’ve taken the message of the Gospel to someone who was not getting it.”
Where and how the men will serve as deacons — should they complete the program — is up to the archbishop. They see a need for this ministry and are open to future ministry.
“At this point in time, it’s difficult to see where I might be assigned by the archbishop if I am fortunate enough to complete the program and be ordained,” said Moffitt. “I could see myself providing some continued services to the prison population in the future, possibly on a part-time basis.”