SPRINGMAID BEACH – The National Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministry, an ecumenical gathering of people who work in ministry for the incarcerated, came to the Diocese of Charles-ton this year and drew more than 100 people for four and a half days of workshops, lectures, prayer, and public demonstration of commitment to justice for those in prison. The goals of the convocation range from abolishing the death penalty to working on alternatives to traditional incarceration.
The convocation started on May 21 with a special address by Bishop Robert J. Baker. The bishop told the crowd that in his 36 years as a priest he had spent several years serving as a chaplain to Catholics on Florida’s Death Row, where he witnessed two executions. He said he also had the privilege of working with some of the people attending the convocation in outreach to prisoners in Florida and South Carolina. He started off his talk by quoting the Catholic orator, writer, and preacher Archbishop Fulton Sheen, who visited a maximum-security prison and told the inmates, “The only difference between you and me is that you got caught.”
“Bishop Sheen wasn’t just kidding,” Bishop Baker said. “His theology of grace in the context of human weakness and sinfulness made it imperative that he included himself among the sinners of the world. I know that none of us here regards himself or herself any better than the people we have served in prisons through the years. That reality keeps us humble in our efforts to reach out to them.
“Isn’t it true that in some way all of us are prisoners, locked in prisons of our own or other people’s making?” Bishop Baker asked. “We may be shackled by fears, addictions, negative attitudes, hostilities stemming from past experiences, inordinate attachments to people or material possessions, obsessions, bad habits, long-standing attractions to one or another form of evil, or just plain sin in general. We may not have landed into jail for our mistakes; but without the grace of God, we could have.”
The bishop went on to say that criminals need to be held responsible for their actions but they still have spiritual needs that should be met.
“I’d like to suggest that Christians have a major responsibility to minister to those who have sinned grievously,” he said. “That responsibility flows from the mandate Jesus gives his followers in Matthew 25:31-46, that is, if they want to make it into heaven. The Lord counseled his disciples to be men and women of mercy and compassion. As disciples of Christ, Christians are invited to seek out the lost. Not only are his followers to seek them out and love them as God loves them. Christians are called to forgive them.”
Later in the week, David Kaczynski gave a powerful speech. Kaczynski, who is the leader of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, is best known as the brother of Ted Kaczynski, also known as the “Unabomber.” From the late 1970s through the mid-1990s, Ted, a loner who sought the downfall of industrial society, was responsible for more than a dozen package and mail bombs that injured dozens of people and killed three. David turned his brother in to authorities in 1996 after realizing that a “Manifesto” written by the Unabomber resembled Ted’s writings. In 1998, Ted Kaczynski was sentenced to life in prison.
David spoke in tandem with Gary Wright, who was a victim of one of the Unabomber attacks. Both men in recent years have become determined activists against the death penalty.
The two told their stories to a rapt audience, taking turns in discussing the pain and fear the Unabomber caused, and the forgiveness that both men became determined to embrace after Ted Kaczynski’s arrest.
“I heard God’s voice, and he said that if Christ could forgive those who crucified him, I had to forgive my attacker, Ted Kaczynski,” Wright said.
David Kaczynski said his experience as the brother of one of the country’s most notorious criminals made him even more committed to work against the death penalty. He cited his brother’s obvious mental illness and talked about how many prisoners have similar afflictions. He also stressed his belief that the United States needs to abolish the death penalty in order to be able to fully embrace justice.
The convocation took its message to the public early on the afternoon of May 24, when many of those attending held a rally and peaceful demonstration for the end of the death penalty at Myrtle Beach’s Chapin Park, a central location in the tourist town.
At a banquet held May 24, a special posthumous award was given to the late Msgr. Thomas Duffy. His sister, Ann Mitchum, accepted the Mike McGough Award, which is given annually to a person who demonstrates commitment to jail and prison ministry and dedication to the “human dignity of the incarcerated,” according to the official description of the award.
Msgr. Duffy, who died in 2004, was an ardent supporter of prison ministry during his life and also spoke out frequently and passionately against the death penalty.
The complete text of Bishop Baker’s talk can be found online at www.catholic-doc.org. For information on the National Convocation of Jail and Prison Ministry go to www.ncjpm.greatnow.com.