December 20, 2019

Annual conference focuses on ministering to those in prison

Russell Boyd, center, speaks about his imprisonment for more than 43 years, 10 of which were spent on Indiana’s death row, during the Corrections Ministry Conference at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington on Nov. 16. Boyd was part of a panel of formerly incarcerated persons led by Deacon Marc Kellams, far left. The conference was the third of its type and marks an increased effort by the archdiocese to better organize and equip people who minister in jails and prisons. Panel members included Richard Samuels, left, David Steele, Russell Boyd, Maria Luttrell and Jay David. (Photos by Katie Rutter)

Russell Boyd, center, speaks about his imprisonment for more than 43 years, 10 of which were spent on Indiana’s death row, during the Corrections Ministry Conference at St. Paul Catholic Center in Bloomington on Nov. 16. Boyd was part of a panel of formerly incarcerated persons led by Deacon Marc Kellams, far left. The conference was the third of its type and marks an increased effort by the archdiocese to better organize and equip people who minister in jails and prisons. Panel members included Richard Samuels, left, David Steele, Russell Boyd, Maria Luttrell and Jay David. (Photos by Katie Rutter)

By Katie Rutter (Special to The Criterion)

BLOOMINGTON—Russell Boyd never expected that he would be outside the prison walls, let alone be a panel member speaking to an audience. Yet on Nov. 16, he was one of the presenters at the annual Corrections Ministry Conference held at St. Paul Catholic Center.

“If it hadn’t been for the people coming in from the outside and encouraging me,” Boyd told those in attendance, “I probably would have been the same man. But I changed.”

Boyd spent 10 years on Indiana’s death row. On Feb. 22, 1989, just 25 hours before he was scheduled to die, he was granted a stay of execution. Four years later, he was re-sentenced and removed from death row, and in January was released from prison.

“I watched my brothers on [death] row die. God, for some reason, he saved me, and from that moment that’s where my faith started to kick in,” Boyd said.

He was one of six formerly incarcerated people who shared their appreciation for prison ministry at the annual conference. About 140 people attended the event, which aimed to equip and recruit ministers to enter correctional institutions and minister to the incarcerated.

The keynote speech was given by well-known activist Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille. Her lifelong ministry to those on death row and campaign against the death penalty were thrust into the spotlight by the 1995 film Dead Man Walking, which was based on her book of the same title.

“I’m no different from you. We’re blessed by grace to be awake enough to sit here on a Saturday morning and know that we are called to go into prisons where Christ is waiting for us,” Sister Helen said to the attendees.

“Blessed are our eyes that see what we see and ears that hear what we hear and hearts that feel what we feel. With God on our side, what is not possible?”

The conference was the third of its type organized by the archdiocese. It marks a growing initiative by the local Church to better organize, connect and equip Catholics who visit the 19 prisons and 92 jails located in the state.

Clergy, religious and lay Catholics have ministered inside these institutions for decades. In 2016, however, a task force began to focus specifically on corrections ministry and how it might be facilitated. A new position, the coordinator of corrections ministry, was formed at the archdiocese shortly after, and the first conference was held in 2017.

“My goal always is to inform those who are already interested so that they can perform their ministry in a more effective and fulfilling way,” explained Deacon Marc Kellams, a former judge and now the coordinator of Corrections Ministry for the archdiocese.

“I also hope that it helps encourage them that there are many people throughout the archdiocese who have devoted significant time and resources to helping those who are most vulnerable and in often dire need of spiritual counseling and support,” Deacon Kellams said.

According to the latest numbers available from the Indiana Department of Corrections, on Oct. 1 there were 28,876 adults held in prisons maintained by the department.

All of the formerly incarcerated people participating at the conference expressed the importance of having ministers come to visit them.

“When people come in, it’s a big deal. It’s more than just a conversation. It’s someone breathing life back into you,” said Richard Samuels, who was incarcerated for 26 years. “When you get into prison, a lot of times hope is not there.”

“Just to see how much [the volunteers] love you and care about you and they spend their time and they’re there to pour into your souls—and you gotta hold onto that for days because then you go back into the dorm and it’s chaos,” explained Maria Luttrell, who was released in April after a decade of imprisonment.

In addition to the panel discussion, the conference also included breakout sessions on topics like best practices for ministering and the correlation of addiction and crime. Attendees frequently engaged in discussion with the presenters, sharing their own experiences to encourage and educate others.

Harlem Lyle and Karen Burkhart, both members of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield, told The Criterion about a lasting relationship that they formed with one person they had ministered to in prison. Once released, the man invited both women to his wedding, then, when the ladies were stuck in traffic en route, he waited to begin the ceremony until they arrived.

“I became his kind of ‘mother/grandmother,’ ” said Burkhart.

“We had helped him find God again, and so he wanted to share [the wedding] with us,” added Lyle.

The conference met under the shadow of several pending executions that were scheduled to take place at the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute in December and January. Attendees bowed their heads in prayer, while Sister of Providence Barbara Battista read aloud the names of those scheduled to die.

Just four days after that prayer, a federal trial judge temporarily suspended those executions. Appeals to that stay continue to make their way through the courts.

“Everybody is worth more than the worst thing they’ve ever done in their life,” Sister Helen said at the conference, an oft‑repeated mantra.

“You know from visiting prisons,” she told those in attendance, “we look into their eyes, and they are human beings, and we reflect in our own minds, ‘What if I was poor, what if I came from a broken family, what if I was taught violence from the time I was 6 years old? Where would I be?’ ”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that capital punishment is “inadmissible.”

Sister Helen emphasized that what everyone needs—including those in prison—is the mercy freely offered to all people by God.

“As a young adult, I did some stupid things,” reflected attendee Dan White, a member of St. Matthew the Apostle Parish in Indianapolis.

“These people just made mistakes in their lives and got caught. … They need somebody now,” White concluded.

As the new Corrections Ministry initiative continues to grow, Deacon Kellams said he intends to focus on facilitating re-entry for those who are released from prison. He affirmed that ministry to the incarcerated is critical to the Catholic faith.

“It says in [the Gospel of] Matthew [25:36] that when I was in jail, you visited me,” Deacon Kellams said, “and it’s an instruction from our Lord to include these people in the body of Christ, and make sure their spiritual needs and their personal needs are met as best we can. It’s a mandate of the Gospel.”
 

(Katie Rutter is a freelance writer and member of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Bloomington.)

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