From prison to peace

Truth of Gospels eventually caught up with inmate

Scott Woltze didn’t think he could be a practicing Catholic and survive in prison.

“Basically I walked around with my fists clenched,” said Woltze, 40, who served three years in the Washington state prison system for robbing three banks when he was 18.

“I thought the Gospels would make me vulnerable,” Woltze said. “I thought if I became a Christian, I’d become meek and humble, and then I’d be a victim of other people’s aggression. That’s not true, of course, but I couldn’t see that at the time.”

It did not help matters that Woltze, who fashioned himself a “solid con” who upheld the prison code, often saw sex offenders, informants and other outcasts he despised finding refuge at Sunday Mass.

“That offended my pride as a solid con,” he said. “I just said to myself, ‘This doesn’t feel like a comfortable place that has the kind of answers I’m looking for.’”

Still, grace was at work. Woltze attended Mass in prison and went to confession, where he admitted his robberies. He started reading the Gospels, and though he resisted their call to conversion, he knew, deep down, he was learning the truth.

“They really seemed to be true. They seemed unique, special, so I took them very seriously. I read them night and day,” Woltze said. “But I felt then I had to choose between what I was reading in the Gospels and my life as a convict. I was either going to be a Christian or a solid con, and I chose to be a solid con.”

The conversion would not come until several years later, after Woltze had left prison and gone on to study for his doctorate in political science at the University of Michigan. While mowing his lawn, he found himself feeling ashamed for mocking a woman’s purity.

“I was mad at myself, and then all of a sudden, everything froze around me, and a heavenly voice said, ‘I love you and I forgive you,’” Woltze said. “Divine love erupted in a gentle way in my chest. That was my Saul on the Road to Damascus moment. But even before then, there were a number of small experiences leading up to my conversion, and I responded favorably to these graces.”

Woltze, who now lives in Portland with his wife and child, has published his conversion story online and is writing an autobiography. He volunteers with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, prays for the unborn during the 40 Days for Life, is involved in various liturgical ministries, and attends the Latin Mass and Eucharistic adoration three times a week.

Woltze was resistant to the idea at first, but he has recently been considering getting involved in prison ministry. The idea began when a parish priest asked him to talk to a 17-year-old parish youth who had been arrested.

“I would say to do effective prison ministry, you really have to build the relationship with the inmates over time,” Woltze said. “They have to see your face over and over again, and see your witness.”

From prisoner to promoter of restorative justice

The family of Heather Dunn wants nothing to do with Leonard Rubio, who shot and killed his ex-girlfriend 27 years ago in Benicia, Calif.

“I have to respect their decision,” said Rubio, 45, who served 23-and-a-half years in the California state prison system, including 14 years at San Quentin State Prison.

Rubio, convicted of second-degree murder, was released on parole in 2010, and is now involved in efforts to promote restorative justice, an approach that focuses on the harm done to the victims and the community, and that encourages the offender to apologize and make reparation for the harm they have caused.

As an inmate, Rubio organized San Quentin’s Interfaith Restorative Justice Roundtable in 2005.

“I was wondering what I could do to bring more light to our faith and what our faith teaches,” Rubio said. “Through prayer, the idea came to me to form this restorative justice roundtable, and to do it as an interfaith group.”

The program at San Quentin is still going strong, and Rubio continued his interest in restorative justice.

“When I got home, I didn’t want to let it go,” Rubio said. “I had to continue it while on the outside because part of what is behind restorative justice is that by committing our crimes, we commit obligations to ourselves, the victims and the community.”

Rubio, a former high school football player, was 18 in September 1986 when he shot and killed his girlfriend near their school’s gymnasium.

After his arrest, Rubio said parishioners began shunning his mother during the sign of peace at Mass.

“It hurt so much that she quit attending Mass for many years,” Rubio said. “That’s one thing that stuck with me.”

Another moment was when a father stopped his two daughters from writing letters Rubio in prison. One of those young women would meet Rubio in prison more than 15 years later and eventually marry him.

Rubio, a third-degree Knight of Columbus, said he feels an obligation to the wider community to speak out at the various presentations, rallies and conferences that he is often invited to attend.

“For me, my incarceration, there is nothing the state could ever do to equal the pain I carry with me for taking the life of my girlfriend,” Rubio said. “The time I spent in prison is not really an issue for me. My faith life helped me get through all of that, knowing that God was willing to forgive me, knowing that my family, my friends, were also willing to be there to support me and forgive me for the pain I caused them as well.”

He spreads the message to the teenagers he often visits at a juvenile detention facility near his home in the Diocese of Sacramento in California.

“I tell them I’m not there to glamorize my life, but to tell them there is hope for a future, and that God can make happen whatever He wants to happen,” Rubio said.

His past still presents challenges. Rubio was a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion in prison, but he said he needs a dispensation in order to carry out those ministries in his parish. Still, he said, he will continue to serve the Church in any way he can.

“God has opened up many doors for me to do this work,” Rubio said.

Using Church tradition to trump criminal mindset

In David Lukenbill’s opinion, the Catholic intellectual tradition is the only body of thought compelling enough to trump the criminal world’s internal narrative.

“But that tradition has to be shown in all its splendor,” Lukenbill, 70, a resident of Sacramento, Calif., told OSV.

Lukenbill
Lukenbill

“That is why it is important to read about the history of the Church, and to look at all the kinds of things the Church has been standing for, doing and saying from the very beginning,” Lukenbill said. “If prison ministry can do that, you are going to attract the intellect of criminals who don’t know about this. The Church has a very powerful story.”

As a young man, Lukenbill spent about 12 years in state and federal prisons for various robberies, thefts and assaults. He said he remained criminally minded for 30 years after he left prison in 1969.

“It wasn’t until I became a Catholic and went through several years of study and prayer — along with finally being baptized and then after that, attending daily Mass, saying a daily Rosary and maintaining a multi-year spiritual discipline — that I finally flushed the criminal mentality out of me,” Lukenbill said.

Lukenbill — whose father also spent 10 years in federal prison and ran with the infamous Pendergast gang in Kansas City, Mo. — grew up in a Mormon household that taught him the Catholic Church was the “Great Whore of Babylon.”

But as an adult, Lukenbill said he discovered Catholic social teaching, especially the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas and Jesuit Father Rodger Charles, author of the book “Christian Social Witness and Teaching.”

Lukenbill and his wife entered the Catholic Church in 2004.

“The Church walks the (walk),” Lukenbill said. “When you look at the whole Church, the things that it says are true and you can believe in them and count on them. It’s just so clear.”

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts