When I was in High School, if someone would have told me that in college I would be visiting inmates once a week, I would say they were crazy.
However, this is what my weeks looked like freshman year. During my first semester of college, I decided to take a leap of faith and courage to join our school’s prison ministry. For some reason, out of all the ministries offered at our school, that was the one that drew me in. A typical day for us was praying a rosary on the 45-minute drive to the facility, and after check-in and security, spending about an hour with the 50-60 men that showed up. Following the time of fellowship, we would celebrate Mass with them and then leave to drive back to campus.
Quite unexpectedly, after the first week, my heart was completely changed. On our first day, we arrived late at the prison, so we got into the building as they were in Mass. As we shuffled into the back of the room, we found our seats and knelt as Father was about to begin the consecration. There was a lot of new information coming in through all of my senses–the smells, the sounds, but the part most ingrained into my memory was the sights. As I looked around me, I saw a room full of men, on their knees, bowing before their God in humility. I found myself weeping on the floor of that room after receiving communion. I thought, who am I? How privileged am I to witness the beauty of seeing men who may be at their rock bottom, kneeling before our Savior? The words of my family and many more re-entered my mind.
“That’s a dangerous place for a young woman to be.”
“They are all just a bunch of junkies and criminals, they will take advantage of your charity.”
“You can serve somewhere else, more safe, where your time won’t be wasted.”
My whole life I had been raised in a culture that told me to be selfish. The culture taught me not to mess up because if I did, forgiveness would be hard to earn. At this moment in prayer, I realized how much love our God has for us. I realized how much forgiveness is a gift, and how much it heals. I realized how human we really are. I realized how unworthy I was. Through the course of the year, week after week, the well in my heart grew wider and deeper for these men. Encounter after encounter, walking and talking with these men through their day to day struggle, my heart broke. Seeing their homesick heartache in the holiday season, and seeing the internalization of the label that had been marked on them “criminal” was one of the most eye-opening things I have ever witnessed. When I looked them in the eyes, I saw my brothers. I saw their hearts. I saw who God made them to be. I saw warriors who were all fighting alone. I saw their joy in their trails. I wanted to dance, jump, and scream for joy when they got back up from a fall.
This is how our heavenly Father looks at us. He sees past what we have done, the mistakes we have made, what social class we are in, what habitual sins we fall into, and he says, “I love you.” And this is the beautiful thing about being human. We are made in the Father’s image and likeness. This means the supernatural love and mercy he carries for us, we can also have for others, with his grace. So when our Father asks us to do the seemingly impossible, scary, or undesirable thing, like spending 4 hours of your Tuesday afternoon to spend time with some inmates, we do it. We are able to love the “unlovable” (they really are so so easy to love guys!) we are able to see straight through that wall of division, sin, hate, and shame, and look straight to the heart. We can call out the lies of the enemy that plague our culture and our minds and say, “I love you for who you are, because of whose you are.”