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Jerry Costello

Bringing Love and Forgiveness to Prisoners

“How does it feel,” the man asked as he took a seat, “to be sitting next to a murderer?”
                The man wasn't kidding. This happened at a maximum security prison in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Barb Skillings—the woman at whom the question was directed—was going through training for prison ministry work. If she’d been completely honest, she might not have answered at all. But once her heart stopped racing, she became gradually aware that a change had taken place, and she began to feel at peace.
                “By the third day,” she said, “I knew I would never be the same…I had never felt such love and forgiveness in one place before.”
                That was 23 years ago, and now Barb Skillings was explaining REC—Residents Encounter Christ, the prison ministry program in which she has been involved—to Bob Zyskowski of The Catholic Spirit of St. Paul-Minneapolis. Of her initial training, she recalled, “I felt and saw how the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ had changed hearts of men whose hearts had been hardened by life.”
                Barb’s husband, Tim, concentrated on those who were youthful offenders. “These young men didn’t have any father figures in their lives,” he said. “They just wanted to know what love was.”
                Others joined in with enthusiastic endorsements of the program. “The REC program opened my heart to the Spirit of Jesus and saved my life,” said one man. “I had a great weight lifted off of me. All my guilt, shame and sadness were gone,” added another.
                At the heart of the program are weekend retreats, most of whose volunteers come from St. Paul parish in Ham Lake, Minnesota. There the prison ministry program is in full flower, headed by Deacon Timothy Zinda, who leads not only the parish program but coordinates the archdiocesan prison ministry as well. It’s all under the umbrella of EMBRACE—which stands for Eucharist, Mercy, Brotherhood, Restoration, Action, Compassion and Encouragement. Its supporters feel it’s especially important for a Year of Mercy project.
                Encountering inmates and getting them to follow the right path is a tall order, but Deacon Zinda appears to be up to the task. “Unless you do it [get involved in prison ministry],” he said, “the only connection you have [with someone incarcerated] is from TV or a newspaper mug shot, and everyone in those look like they crawled out from under a rock.”
                One former inmate who learned much from the weekend retreats and stayed on to help conduct them is Rob Maho, who says: “I want to be used for the furthering of His kingdom so that prayerfully there will be more men who make it into eternal life with Christ than there would have if I did nothing.”
                Despite this and similar endorsements, Deacon Zinda finds a lack of ready volunteers for prison ministry. When he announced an information program on the weekend retreats, for example, only about 50 attended—a number that he found disappointing.
                “We need to open this opportunity to serve to others,” Zinda said. “Even though it’s a parish thing, it doesn’t need to be. We’re a universal church.”

For a free copy of the Christopher News Note, LEADERSHIP IN MERCY, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail:<>