ABERDEEN - Lori Maki was really scared the first time she stepped inside Stafford Creek Corrections Center, where more than 1,900 men are serving their sentences.
But as soon as she saw their faces, Maki said she realized: “They are children of God, too. These guys could be someone’s father, brother or son.”
Ten years later, Maki, a parishioner at St. Mary Parish in Aberdeen, is still making the 20-mile journey from Aberdeen to Stafford. She and her parishioner team of two men and a woman offer Bible study classes every Monday and communion services every Thursday. Twice a month, a priest from St. Mary’s says Mass during the Thursday visit.
“We try to make it very inviting and welcoming,” Maki said of the gatherings, which are open to all, but mostly attended by Catholics.
The priests also pray the rosary with the men, hear their confessions and chat about their faith. “We give them hope,” said Heralds of Good News Father Francis Arulappan, priest administrator at St. Mary’s. “We let them know there is a future for them.”
The St. Mary’s volunteers are among some 150 parishioners, priests and deacons who regularly visit more than 20 jails, prisons and juvenile facilities in Western Washington, according to Joe Cotton, the archdiocese’s director of pastoral care.
Members of the St. Mary’s prison ministry try to plan something special for feast days at Stafford, within the confines of the facility’s regulations. On Dec. 14, they celebrated Our Lady of Guadalupe (two days after her feast day) with a Mass celebrated by Auxiliary Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg for 40 inmates and 12 visitors.
Stafford is one of the few prisons without a chapel, but the simple room where they always meet “felt like a cathedral” that night, Maki said.
Rick Kangas, an inmate at Stafford Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, reads the prayers of the faithful during Mass at the facility in December. Also pictured, from left, are Father Victorraj Anasdass from St. Mary Parish in Aberdeen, Father Zevier Hirudayaraj Arockiam of St. Lawrence Parish in Raymond and Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg. Also participating in the Mass but not pictured is Father Vinner Raj Simeon Raj of St. Mary’s Parish. Photo: Stephen Brashear
The men were a little nervous when asked to serve as lectors, singers and musicians at the Mass with Bishop Mueggenborg, Maki said, but “they’re always very willing to help.”
After Mass, Bishop Mueggenborg sat in a circle with a group of the men. “I could see the faces of all the guys,” Maki said. “They just loved it.”
Having bishops and priests come to the prison is a very special experience for the men, Cotton said. “It lets them know they are of equal value and dignity as the other Catholics in the archdiocese,” he said.
Everyone has a second chance
For many of the men, attending a weekly Bible study can seem special, too.
Some of the men don’t have visitors, so they sign up for the classes to have someone to talk with, said Karin Ciani, a member the St. Mary’s prison ministry team. “Attending Bible study gives them a break from thinking that they’re there [in prison],” she said.
During Bible study, volunteers introduce the readings for the coming week and lead a discussion with the 10-15 men who usually attend. “We really are getting different perspectives depending where people are in their personal journeys,” Maki said.
Ciani, who leads the Bible study for Spanish speakers, said she is always learning from the men, who represent a variety of countries, beliefs and values. Her time at Stafford has taught her that everyone has a second chance.
“They sometimes don’t make the right decisions,” she said. “They feel like victims sometimes, but they’re not, as long as they realize God gives [them] the second chance.”
Francisco Rojas, an inmate at Stafford Creek Correction Center in Aberdeen, provides music for the special Our Lady of Guadalupe Mass at the prison in December. Rojas is an active participant in services and Bible study classes offered by prison ministers from St. Mary Parish in Aberdeen. Photo: Stephen Brashear
‘No small task’
Starting the parish prison ministry was “no small task” Maki said. “When you are working with the [state] Department of Corrections, there are a lot of regulations.”
Volunteers must go through an orientation process to learn a multitude of policies and undergo a background check, Maki said. “When you’re dealing with something as intimate as faith and prayer, you still have to walk the line the DOC requires,” she added.
Although the men often want to talk about their crimes, Ciani prefers not to hear those stories. Instead, she tells them: “You’re paying for what you did. My job is to guide you in your faith.”
The St. Mary’s ministry could use more volunteers, but Ciani said she thinks “fear of the unknown” prevents some people from volunteering. In her experience, the men’s behavior has not been a problem, because “they just want to finish their time and leave,” she explained.
Father Arulappan said he was nervous when he first visited Stafford about a year ago, but he received a lot of support and help from the prison officers and the parish volunteers. Now, “we are very happy to go,” he said.
Making the trip week after week can be tiring, but it’s not really up to her to stop, Maki said —she feels God is calling her to do this work. “Sometimes I feel I don’t know my Catholicism very well,” she said. “I just know that I love God and He loves me. I don’t understand why I feel this very strong message from Him to be [at Stafford].”
After celebrating Mass for them, Bishop Daniel Mueggenborg chats with men who are serving time at Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen. “I could see the faces of all the guys. They just loved it,” said Lori Maki, a member of the prison ministry team at St. Mary Parish in Aberdeen, which visits the prison twice a week. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Another message that has stuck with her is one she learned at orientation — be consistent. “These guys are used to people not being there,” she was told. Maki decided then that if she was going to undertake prison ministry, she was “really gonna do it.”
Prison ministry “may push you beyond your comfort zone,” Cotton said, but it fulfills the call to be missionary disciples. Prisons house “some people very much in need of love,” he noted.
Those considering work in prison ministry should listen to their hearts, Ciani said. “If you do [it] with your heart,” she said, “one life you can touch is enough.”