Valerie Schultz and her husband thought they had volunteered for their parish’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter. But through some fluke, their names were listed under the new detention ministry instead. The result of that fortunate mistake is her new book, Overdue: A Dewey Decimal System of Grace in which she shares some of her experiences during her fourteen years as a prison librarian. (Published by Liturgical Press)
At first Schultz was afraid to volunteer in a prison. She had seen too many movies about prison inmates. But over time she learned that inmates were “just folks–young, old, short, tall, thin, stout, bald, well-coiffed, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, outgoing, shy, articulate, silent, funny, stern.” Some inmates were dangerous, some were gentle; some were filled with hate, but many were kind. In short, they were similar to the non-incarcerated population.
Schultz creatively divides her book into chapters based on the Dewey Decimal system. In chapter one she gives brief descriptions of some of the inmates, concealing their identities by never using their real names and by altering some of the facts about them. Soon a picture emerges about the “normal” inmate. Normal inmates, for example, have had bad childhoods–extremely bad ones filled with horrific childhood experiences. Many grew up in poverty, had never met their fathers, never learned to read, never got a birthday present, never had a home address. It’s easy to see why membership in a gang would be so attractive to many of them.
Addiction too was a part of most inmates’ lives. Many, many crimes are the result of drugs and alcohol. Another experience inmates share is this: they often have no identity except the crime for which they are imprisoned. Schultz raises the question: How would you like your identity to be reduced to the worst thing you ever did in your life–as if nothing else matters. What’s worse, your awful deed is the only thing that is known about you.
Here are a few insights gleaned from Schultz’s book:
When she led Communion services in prison, she was surprised how often the inmates prayed for their victims and the families of their victims.
She found a “Congress of World Religions” in prison: Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Mormons, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Druids, Odinists, Native American Spiritualists, Wiccans, Satanists, and Atheists.
Schultz narrates sad stories of inmates paroled and returning to prison again shortly afterwards. But there are encouraging stories of former inmates doing well, the growing interest in prison reform, of dedicated staff members and volunteers, of the increase in transitional housing for parolees. As a writer, I was especially interested in the newsletter she started in which inmates could share their prose, poetry, and art.
Throughout the book, Schultz never romanticizes the prison or its inmates. She is always fully aware that many of the inmates committed terrible crimes. At the same time she claims she found God within the those prison walls, saying, “God was palpably everywhere.” The motivating force behind her ministry is something Fr. Gregory Boyle said. He’s the author of Tattoos on the Heart which I wrote about on this blog a few years back. Boyle said, “Bring love where none exists.” Schultz writes: “I think of those five words as a mission statement for life.” I agree. No matter our age or circumstances, aren’t we all just trying to bring a little more love into the world?
Did anything stand out for you in today’s reflection?
Are any of you involved in jail or prison ministry? If so, is there something you could share with us about your ministry?
PS: I ask your prayers for the retreat I will be facilitating at the Franciscan Spiritual Center in Aston, PA this weekend, Oct. 18-20. Thank you very much!
PS #2: Special thanks to the prayer group (7 women and 3 men) in Willoughby Hills, OH who are reading and praying with my book on hope. They invited me to one of their sessions this past week and I was very inspired by their discussion and their prayer.
“I was in prison and you visited me.” These words are found in Matthew 25. Here is a beautiful song called “Matthew 25 Song” by Sherri Youngward. There are no printed lyrics but the refrain is: “You were hungry…thirsty… lonely and afraid… You were crying and no one heard you. You were dying and no one cared.” The final refrain is a positive one. “I was hungry, but you fed me… I was lonely, and you called my name… I was dying, and you came.”
As usual, I invite a response from you below!