Archbishop Alexander Sample prays over Anthony Wesley Good before Good is baptized and confirmed Dec. 7 at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Good spent months preparing to become Catholic. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)
Archbishop Alexander Sample prays over Anthony Wesley Good before Good is baptized and confirmed Dec. 7 at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Good spent months preparing to become Catholic. (Courtesy Archdiocese of Portland)
The walls at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland were recently painted, the floors newly waxed. The scene was set Dec. 7 for Archbishop Alexander Sample to celebrate Mass here and to welcome a new Catholic into the faith.

After being sent to prison from a life in gangs, Anthony Wesley Good asked to be put in solitary confinement so he could search for spiritual truth. He studied countless traditions — Eastern, Western and everything in between. He was released and then resentenced, at which point he paid a visit to a Catholic Bible study.

He was home.

Good spent seven months studying Catholicism before telling Ariel Fauley, the Catholic volunteer coordinator at Columbia River Correctional, that he wished to be baptized.

Fauley explained the serious nature of his request. He understood. She flooded him with readings, classroom work and one-on-one instruction. Good spent the month leading up to the archbishop’s visit being excused from regular obligations so he could focus on final preparations. He was released from Columbia River Correctional a short time after joining the church.

“His story is inspiring, reminding us that we are all restored to life in Christ, drawn to the Father in the Holy Spirit to live in eternal Trinitarian life,” wrote Linda Showman, director of Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Portland, in the last archdiocesan prison ministry newsletter. “It fortifies the hope that filled with grace, we too will continue to live as Christ on earth, fulfilling the will of God.”

Prison life

Before he became a doctor of philosophy who wrote a dissertation on prisons, Scott Woltze was an inmate. After dropping out of high school and robbing three banks at 18, he was sent to  a maximum security prison. He shared his story with prison ministers at an archdiocesan conference a couple of years ago.

Prison ministry is “one of the most difficult ministries in the church,” said Woltze. The things that draw you to God — truth, beauty and goodness — are absent in prison life.

“It really does seem godforsaken,” said Woltze. “You feel like it’s the last place God would be.”

Prison can be a difficult place to be a Christian. Woltze started reading the Gospels while there — inmates have a lot of time to read. He hid the Gospels under a Louis Lamour book so no one would notice.

“It was a remarkable work of grace because, as I was reading, I could tell the Gospels weren’t just a regular book,” said Woltze. “It seemed like the words were coming alive off the page.”

Woltze thought the stories from the Gospels must have been true.

“It was so weird that humans couldn’t make it up. It was weird and also realistic,” he said. “There was a beauty and truth there I hadn’t seen before.”

Still, in prison, Christianity is not talked about. Woltze thought becoming a Christian would make him vulnerable. In the society that is prison, Woltze ran among the in crowd — murderers, robbers, drug runners. There was no desire to sink to the out group made up of snitches and sex offenders or even worse — the weak.

Among prisoners, strength, pride and hypermasculinity reign. Pride, even of crimes inmates regretted, was so prized, that when Woltze was offered the chance to go to a minimum security prison, he developed a plan to beat someone up in the lunch room so he would be thrown into solitary confinement instead. He told his plan to his friends — the guys he says ran the prison. They told him, no. They told him not to be like them and to start over. And so he did. Kindness can still be found in prison.

Inmates are impressed when prison ministers keep showing up. Woltze says the fact that his grandparents drove long distances to visit him in prison still touches his heart after 23 years.

“To me, it was really powerful,” said Woltze, encouraging volunteers to keep at it. The hypermasculinity of prison life means inmates don’t talk about feelings or conversions. And there’s social pressure to avoid religious services because of the dispproportiate number of “weak” and “out” people who attend.

To the tough guys in prison wanting to attend a religious service, Woltze says, “I know it’s hard for you to be here, but Jesus really honors the fact that you’re here despite the social pressures.”

Woltze didn’t convert in prison. But his time there laid groundwork for his eventual return to Catholicism.

To the prison ministers, Woltze says, “It’s a tough place to evangelize but the inmates do notice.”

Relying on the Holy Spirit

The first time Bill Wolfe walked into a maximum security prison, it was at the request of his cousin who had been trying to convince him to volunteer in prison ministry. Wolfe, a parishioner at St. Edward Parish in Lebanon, was in Southern California when his cousin told him that he arranged for them both to visit the prison. Wolfe had questions including, but not limited to, was it safe? The cousin assured Wolfe that it was. So the two walked to the chapel in the center of the prison for a prison ministry session. When they arrived, the pastor in charge of the session broke everyone up into two groups and asked them to discuss four questions written on the white board.

Wolfe’s circle of 25 men took their seats and began their discussion. At one point during the small-group discussion, a man locked eyes with Wolfe. The man was more than 7 feet tall Wolfe estimates. He went on to describe in detail his crime, never breaking eye contact with the new man in the circle — Wolfe.

Wolfe thought the man was trying to get a reaction from him since it was his first time in a prison. But when the man finished talking about his crime of killing a girl, he explained how sorry he was.

“The tears started pouring down his face,” describes Wolfe. “My heart was melting.”

“I just wanted to help him but I didn’t know how to help him. I kept asking the Lord to help me to help him.”

The incarcerated man went on to describe how he had written a letter to the family of the girl killed and had it published in the local newspaper. But he had never gotten a response. Then, the day Wolfe paid his visit to the prison, the inmate had finally gotten a response from the girl’s aunt. She said if the man was truly sorry, he would help her get her son out of life around gangs.

“When he was reading this, you could just see his demeanor change. He went from tears to joy, like he had a purpose,” recalls Wolfe. “It was uplifting to see the hope in his eyes.”

Then the man stood up and began pacing the floor before saying, “She didn’t accuse me, not once. Why? Why didn’t see accuse me?” He kept repeating it, each time louder than the last. He stopped dead in his tracks, pointed at Wolfe and asked what he had to say about that. Wolfe looked down, praying for words from the Holy Spirit. Then, he looked up at the massive inmate and said, “Well, it’s pretty clear to me that the Holy Spirit is healing you from the inside out.” The inmate was taken aback. He got quiet, says Wolfe. Then, he got up from his seat and walked over to Wolfe, hugging him.

The experience was so moving that Wolfe was convinced if God wanted him to be involved in prison ministry, God would make it happen and he did. Wolfe’s been a volunteer at Oregon State Penitentiary for the past two years.

Listening

Suzie Hetrick began volunteering at the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn about six years ago after a seminarian who had been helping out there came to ask for her parish’s help. Hetrick is a member of St. Agnes Mission in Hubbard. She had never worked with at-risk youth but she did have three grown sons. So she prayed about it and then dove into the ministry.

Hetrick has seen a lot of fruit from volunteering at MacLaren, though it’s sometimes hard to quantify. Not all of the youths are Catholic. Not all of them are Christian. Some dabble in other religions.

“Youth are all searching,” says Hetrick. But there have been young men at the facility who’ve received the sacraments in incarceration.

Hetrick says she gets more out of the ministry than she could ever give to someone else.

She recalls one Thanksgiving when she asked all the young men to identify one thing they were thankful for. Nearly all of the dozen inmates said they were thankful to be incarcerated. Some said they would never have grown to appreciate their family, gain new skills or simply mature without the time in detention.

Hetrick was blown away that the young men identified jail as being an opportunity for growth. So, Hetrick listens to the men and their stories.

“I’m just there trying to do what Jesus did — come alongside people and listen.”

‘In prison and you visited me’

John Hoffmeister, a member of St. Edward Parish in Keizer, has been volunteering at Oregon State Penitentiary for the past five years. He was in Mass one day and heard the passage in Matthew 25, when Jesus dictates his judgement of the nations.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”

The last line struck Hoffmeister: “in prison and you visited me.” He found the local woman in charge of prison ministry and started volunteering.

When volunteers arrive at the facility, they transform a penitentiary classroom into a chapel. The first 15 minutes of each service is spent greeting the inmates. During Tuesday night religious education, the volunteers bring in movies like Bishop Robert Barron’s Catholicism series and religious themed films about the saints and then have a discussion. There’s a Spanish religious education class on Thursday nights. And most Sundays, there are confession and Mass.

“We bring Jesus to them,” said Hoffmeister.

“Part of what makes this so valuable is that these men are used to seeing other convicts or staff. When a religious services volunteer comes in, this is a normal conversation they can have with someone from the outside not connected to the system.”

Hoffmeister says his volunteer work has been rewarding.

“Countless times, we’ve walked out together just amazed at how good we felt about the time we put in and the contacts we had.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org