July 11, 2018

Mercy works

By Elizabeth Kelly *
Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, CA / Credit: Carles Rabada on Unsplash
Alcatraz Prison in San Francisco, CA / Credit: Carles Rabada on Unsplash

When we met, Tammy had yet to reach her twenty-fifth birthday. It was her second stint in prison, this time on a charge of armed robbery. At home, she had two young children, whom Tammy’s father was raising. She rarely saw them. To say that there was sadness in her eyes is an understatement. They were overtaken by a profound vacancy and despair.

The program for which I volunteered required that you meet with a prisoner once a week for several months to discuss “decision-making skills.” The prisoners were given homework and short reading assignments about how to make good decisions and how to recognize in advance the consequences of bad decisions. On my first visit with Tammy, she told me, “I didn’t do it.” She said that she had been asleep in the backseat of her boyfriend’s car when he and a friend decided to hold up a 7-Eleven. Tammy barely knew her own mother, for she had been imprisoned by the time Tammy was fifteen and was still in prison. 

I was very young when I volunteered for this ministry. I knew little of the world and virtually nothing of the realities that someone like Tammy faced. Our visits reminded me at times of a scene out of a Flannery O’Connor novel, dark and humorous for their pretense filled with characters desperately hoping for a different reality. Tammy – wildly emotional, over-enthusiastic, cheerful one minute and brooding the next, wishing so to be the wrongfully accused, fighting against the lions of injustice from a prison cell. And me – wishing so that I had the words, the maturity, the depth and desire of a Mother Teresa to bring life into the heart of a deeply wounded soul. And realizing with flat clarity how far short I fell, how widely I missed the mark, like a basketball dimpled for lack of air hitting the hard gym floor and rolling absolutely nowhere.

I’d realized, almost from our first visit, that this was a ministry for which I was ill-suited. Each week as I drew closer to the prison, I was filled with dread. I wish I could say that I made a difference in Tammy’s life, but I confess that I was relieved when my tenure ended. We were forbidden from exchanging personal information and I have no idea what became of her. Still, twenty-five years later, I have never forgotten her and so many invisible women like her, nor the crushing despair that draped over that women’s prison like a putrid, choking fog.

Lately, I’ve been leading an 8-week study based on my book, Jesus Approaches, throughout my archdiocese. Nearly 400 women have participated so far and it has been tremendously rewarding. Not long ago, through one of my small group facilitators, I was introduced to a deacon who serves as a chaplain in a women’s prison with an interest in bringing the book to those he serves. When I asked, the women currently in my study didn’t hesitate. I have been overwhelmed at the ease of gathering donations on behalf of these incarcerated women from those currently in my study, like turning on a tap and having fresh, clean water flow out. God bless you for your generosity, ladies.

And I am deeply humbled by God’s mercy at providing, after all, a way for me to “visit” the imprisoned. 

Lord, your mercy works – always and everywhere. It stretches into our future and envelops our past. Help us to remember those the world chooses to forget and look for creative ways to serve them and love them, even from a distance. 

Elizabeth Kelly is an award-winning speaker and the author of six books, including including Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom and Joy from the Women of the New Testament. She is trained as a spiritual director in the Ignatian exercises and leads retreats with a particular focus on helping women to flourish in their faith. She teaches in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas (MN). Her website is: www.LizK.org.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.