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Mileage, Motivation, and Ministry

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Editor’s note: During Pittsburgh native Jeff Sved’s visit to the US he plans to run his first full marathon in May. In the last post, he answered questions about training for a marathon while in Bolivia. Today, he talks about he got into running in the first place.

What do you like about running and how did you get into it?

Simply put, I got into running to deal with the stress of working in prison ministry.

I started in prison ministry in 2011 while serving with another organization, Franciscan Volunteer Ministry, where, among other ministries, I helped with the GED program at Baylor Women’s Correctional Institution in Wilmington, DE. In trying to deal with a few specific stressful situations there, I needed time outdoors, outside the confines of the prison that felt extremely constricting to the point where I’d leave during my lunch hour just to go sit in the parking lot. Growing up on a farm, I guess nature is a huge part of my own self-care and my sanity!

On a particularly rough day, a roommate invited me on a run in beautiful Brandywine Park and ever since it has been a way for me to process and center.

I often talk about being inside a prison as something that feels constricting and limited or even soul-smothering. For this reason, I need to balance it out with things that are soul-expanding and let me breathe. I run because I need that space to minister to myself so I am able to minister to others.

Running became even more important to me after being in prison ministry in Bolivia with Franciscan Mission Service — especially in the past few years of police corruption, extortion, etc. where heads of security (similar to a warden in the U.S. system) are regularly removed from their post; where inmate protests and hunger strikes are a regular occurrence; where a major assassination attempt inside a prison injured 15 and killed four; where government officials that work in the prisons are regularly arrested.

There is a lot of stress and uncertainty that comes with my choice of wanting to be present in the prisons. Thankfully, I do have the opportunity to run for my own care.

Mission is much more of a marathon than a sprint and the long runs especially are how I keep myself sane for the long haul. It’s a bit ironic that running 20 miles is what keeps me from burning out. But week after week, I find myself needing those two or three hours to process one week and prepare for the next.

Do you ever talk about running while you’re at the prisons?

Most of the guys I visit know that I am training because of the couple Días de Peaton, where I showed up for mass in running clothes. Every few months, Cochabamba celebrates a “Pedestrian Day”: only bikes and people are allowed on the streets between the hours of 6 am and 6 pm. All roads are closed to traffic, which means if I want to be at the mass in San Antonio, I’m running there! It has been fun to share this part of my personal life with them.

They’re all supportive of it, and often make jokes about how much I’m running. There are days when my muscles are so stiff that I struggle to make it up the ladder into the carpentry shop. When I finally make it up, it’s always met with a lot of laughter.

Can you talk a little bit more about prison ministry? What are the main differences you’ve noticed between the prison system in Bolivia and the prison system in the US?  

In the six prisons where I serve in Cochabamba, all but one has five visiting days a week, each from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. There are also no limitations on frequency of visitors. The Bolivian prison system has many many flaws, but it does get one thing right in maintaining the social structure around those who are incarcerated. This means people who have formed the inmates’ support system throughout their lives can continue to be present as their support during their incarceration and after their release.

In the US, our prison system often focuses so much on removing inmates from society to the extent that we forget that the overwhelming majority of them will one day re-enter society. Solitary confinement can be effective in some cases as a form of punishment, but is extremely counter-productive in rehabilitation.

This was one of the points Pope Francis made while visiting a prison in Bolivia in September 2015.  “Reclusión no es lo mismo que exclusión,” he said – stressing that seclusion or imprisonment is not the same as exclusion from society.

You talked about how running keeps you centered during the stress of prison ministry, but does it also connect you to that ministry?

During a mass in San Antonio last year, one of the sisters handed out little Miraculous Medals that many of the men added to their key chain or a cross they carry. I have a cross from a retreat in college on my left wrist, and little by little I’ve added reminders of different communities to that cross.

The cross and medals

The cross and medals

The medal from that mass is one way I take the men in San Antonio, San Pablo, and San Sebastian with me while I run.

I’ve found this “community” cross to be wonderfully helpful on long runs; whenever I feel myself getting tired or losing motivation I look down at my wrist and see reminders of many people who have supported me throughout my life. My community in my ministries is just one of many groups that I feel connected to when I run.

*Photo Credit: Megan Newell

Jeff Sved served in Cochabamba, Bolivia, from 2013-2016. His main ministry was working with inmates in seven prisons throughout Cochabamba.

Prior to joining FMS he served in Wilmington, Del., with Franciscan Volunteer Ministry teaching math in a prison and teaching English to members of the Latino community. Originally from Pittsburgh, Penn., and a graduate of Villanova University.