Bringing Christ to Prison
Fr. Ed Dougherty, M.M.
Residents Encounter Christ (R.E.C.) is an outreach program where volunteers lead a
weekend-long in-house retreat for people in prison. R.E.C programs exist throughout the country
and are adapted from the Cursillo model where a three-day retreat focuses on strengthening
people’s faith and encouraging them to return to their daily lives with the courage to share Christ’s
message of hope.
Christopher friend Jim Collins has been involved in R.E.C. for the past year and recently took
part in a weekend retreat at a prison in upstate New York. He says, “The thing about these retreats is that you seem to go in focused on the idea that you’re bringing Christ to these people, and you realize when you go there that you’re taking Christ home with you to share with your community.”
Collins notes how few men in ordinary parishes are willing to go on retreat in contrast to the large numbers of prisoners who sign up to participate in the R.E.C. program. The retreat begins on a Friday afternoon with a quiet tone of meditation to take a purposeful step away from everyday life. “It’s like Jesus going into the desert,” Collins says, adding that prisoners often seem attuned to the mindset of Jesus in the desert because they are in situations where they have to do without and cope with the kind of solitude Jesus willingly confronted.
The difficulties of prison life can be tremendous, making the R.E.C. program all the more important and rejuvenating. Participants break into groups to discuss topics relating to things they have read or heard that can influence their actions for the better. The hosts present talks and sometimes provide entertainment in the form of a skit based on events in the Gospels.
Recalling a movie shown at their recent retreat, Collins says, “It was about a violin that was discarded but then found and restored, and it parallels how God can restore us when we’re broken. No matter what happens to us, we are still that violin that God created but we have to learn how to play it because God has designed us to be beautiful and have great music.”
Collins encourages more people to volunteer to help run R.E.C. retreats. Talking about his own call to participate in this powerful ministry, the impact it has had on him, and the change in his life that has led him to be able to answer that call, Collins says, “I don’t think I would have been the same way 20 years ago. I have a cousin who was murdered, and my attitude towards prisoners was that they should be locked up and we should throw away the key. But now I see the human value and dignity of each and every one of them. When you throw them away, what will God say to you? He’ll say, ‘You forgot about some of my brothers who were incarcerated.’”
Jim Collins’ witness demonstrates the importance of venturing beyond our comfort zone to help those on the margins of society. By doing so, we answer Christ’s call to show mercy to others and help them in their hour of need, regardless of what mistakes they have made. We also place ourselves in situations where we can find Christ in faith-filled interactions and grow in wisdom and understanding of the ways of God. What tremendous gifts these are that await those who walk the selfless path in life and choose to give of themselves to people in need.
For free copies of the Christopher News Note FINDING CHRIST IN COMMUNITY, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org