Editor’s Note: The following is part of our daily holiday series celebrating “The Shared World.” Teresa is a Secular Franciscan with a long-standing relationship with the FMS family.
“To proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners…” (Is 61:1)
About 12 years ago, I received an invitation from Andrew, one of the first prisoners from when I started the ministry, to come to Family Day at his state prison because his father was ill and he had no other person to visit him.
While standing in the long line with all of the other family members (including many elderly, children, and handicapped), I felt a great connection to all of these people who made their own journeys to enjoy this once-a-year event.
After clearing security, I walked outside to a large recreation area, marked by the bleakness of chain link fencing and concertina wire, into a swarming sea of people. As I wondered how I would ever find Andrew, I heard my name being shouted over and over again by many voices.
Within minutes, I was surrounded by Peter, James, and John – three men I had known from weekly Scripture sharing sessions at another facility! While we had stayed in correspondence, I had not seen them since their sentences and transfers. Not far behind them was Andrew, who was beaming at the reunion that had happened because of his invitation. At least four other men who had participated in our ministry also stopped by to greet me—a mother hen surrounded by her chicks once again. ☺
After Family Day, our letters to one another became more familiar, especially by sharing what was happening with their own lives and the others there at the prison. They all had serious health issues, so one of the greatest topics of concern was always health care (or lack of it) and the fear of dying in prison, never knowing freedom again.
In February 2003, the year that James was scheduled for parole, he collapsed in front of the other men during movement. I received a collect phone call from a very distraught John, not knowing whether his friend would return. As it turned out, James passed away at age 68, leaving John and Peter to wonder if anyone ever came to claim his body and to give him a proper burial.
Over the years, both John and Peter wrote to me about their own hospitalizations and fear of being alone if something should happen to them. Five years after James passed away, I received a phone call from the prison that I was listed as John’s emergency contact and that he had been taken to a nearby hospital. No other information was provided.
After praying fervently for John and discussing the situation with my husband, I decided to take the train for the hour and a half journey and walk to the hospital. I found John in the Intensive Care Unit and in a coma.
After greeting him, I sat beside him and prayed for him aloud, assuring him that he was not to be afraid. I couldn’t help but wonder if James was waiting for John to join him in paradise, where the captives are free. I spent an hour with John at his bedside. He never regained consciousness, dying two days later.
This shared captive world opened my eyes to a whole new dimension in my prison ministry. Now, there is only Peter, who has suffered grand mal seizures. For 13 years, he has been a brother in Christ, marking birthdays and anniversaries. The deaths of both James and John while in prison have been transformative for both Peter and me, but they have taught us that fear can never extinguish the precious awareness of being God’s beloved.
*Names changed for privacy
Teresa Redder is a Secular Franciscan from Eastampton, NJ, who is married to Jeff (also a Secular Franciscan). They have four adult children, and five grandchildren. She started her volunteering in prison ministry in 1998 after retiring from the US Air Force.Share Christ’s Peace this Christmas: Give a Gift to FMS Read more stories of “The Shared World”