Prison ministry was not something Deacon Tommy Ewing had in mind when he was ordained a dozen years ago.
In fact, it was something he tried to push away.
“I had fear. I didn’t want to go inside those gates,” Ewing said of prison ministry. “Once you go in, and you come into contact with these people, you realize that except for the grace of God go I.”
Ewing now heads up prison ministry for the Diocese of Beaumont. Located in the far southeast corner of Texas, there are a number of state units and a federal prison within its boundaries.
For the past few years, one of the most significant and meaningful ministries Ewing oversees has been the St. Maximilian Kolbe Prison Ministry.
This retreat-style model grew out of an ACTS Retreat — a lay-driven, parish-based model — at the maximum security Connally Unit in between San Antonio and Corpus Christi, within the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
In 2012, what had become the Kolbe Prison Ministry came to Beaumont.
One chance to retreat
When Ewing and his volunteers first proposed the retreat-style program to a local prison warden, he was met with hardened skepticism.
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has more than 800 prison ministries operating in the system. With so much opportunity for faith connection in such an environment, the warden was firm: one shot at one retreat. If it worked, great. If not, that was it.
“About three weeks after the first retreat, we met back with the warden,” Ewing said. There had been about 66 inmates who attended the program.
The warden reached into the drawer of his desk, pulling out a stack of letters, about 66 of them, Ewing said.
The warden, citing the positive reaction mentioned in each of the letters, asked when the ministry could host another retreat, Ewing said.
Prison officials around the state have seen similar results, and because of this, the program is expanding its footprint.
“It is a real good program,” said Michael Rutledge, director of chaplaincy for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“Once Kolbe comes in and does a weekend, you will have an uptick on the services,” Rutledge said. “That’s a positive thing toward meeting the rehabilitative needs of the offender.”
Because of the style of the retreats — intensive, weekendlong, community-building — there are logistic concerns inside and outside of the prison, Rutledge said.
Volunteers and prison staff must meet to coordinate the needs of the event. Food is brought in, and the retreat is publicized in the unit.
Outside the prison system, volunteers and staff such as Ewing are lining up facilitators, arranging food donations and praying.
Within the Diocese of Beaumont, there are about 300 volunteers putting on retreats in the two women’s prisons within its boundaries, as well as the men’s prisons.
|What Comes Next?
Even with programs like the Kolbe Prison Ministry growing, those in prison ministry work recognize a gaping hole remains.
Transitioning inmates from a life inside to a life outside the prison walls is a place where much work is yet to be done, said Deacon Tommy Ewing, who serves as the director of the office of criminal justice ministry for the Diocese of Beaumont.
Each of Texas’ 15 dioceses has a prison ministry leader, and part of their job is to try to help the recently released with clothing, food, housing and employment.
But the lack of structured life, such as the extremes that exist in a prison environment, makes the adjustment extremely difficult, Ewing said.
“There’s something missing, because in prison they are told what to do, how to do it, when to do it,” he said. “It’s very hard for some of them.”
In his diocese, they try to provide a small “seed” to get them started, to get their feet on the ground.
But the success is not very good, with maybe about one or two out of five recently released from prison staying out of trouble, said Ewing, who puts some of the blame, along with the absence of structure, on the deep need to be accepted.
Some of the volunteers in his diocese have been working with others, including a U.S. attorney, to help build halfway houses in a quasi-monastic model.
In these homes, the idea is that the newly released inmates will find acceptance, structure and a place to grow, live and pray together.
“They have to want to,” he said.
Each retreat costs about $2,500 to put on, and in the Hill Country of Texas, much of that money is coming out of the ranchers’ and oil workers’ pockets, Ewing said. (Editor’s note: The Our Sunday Visitor Institute has provided grant funding to Kolbe Prison Ministry.)
Attendance in each retreat is capped at about 66, and those who participated in prior retreats are selected by lottery to share their experiences in another retreat.
When the retreat takes place, it involves participation in the Stations of the Cross, the Sacrament of Reconciliation and Eucharistic adoration. It is also breaking bread together in both the physical and spiritual planes.
“You can see them becoming visibly moved,” Ewing said.
Eucharistic adoration, set aside in a room throughout the retreat, is a particularly profound experience.
Prison is a very dark place.
“You bring the light of Christ in, and these men can sense it,” he said. “It makes a difference.”
Even if those in attendance are not Catholic, Kolbe facilitators encourage confession. The access to confession and adoration softens even the hardest of hearts, Ewing said.
“It’s a huge, life-changing experience,” he said.
Prison officials have noticed that this ministry is particularly effective at bringing to light the external issues that may be troubling an inmate and allowing for those issues to be brought forward to be addressed, Rutledge said.
“It’s bringing about transformation,” Rutledge said. “You can’t bring about transformation for anybody unless you touch their heart.”
Ewing shared a letter received by a federal inmate who participated in the Kolbe program.
“How’s Kolbe retreat Brothers doing?” the inmate wrote. “You know I always hold you all dear to my heart deeply and I never forget the love of Christ through all of you.”
The program has made such a profound impact in the lives of those who have participated, Ewing said.
“They have actually found friendship, love, brotherhood,” he said. “So many of them had lost hope.”
In his letter, the inmate wrote to Ewing of the transformation he experienced through the Kolbe ministry.
“Thank you for everything,” he wrote. “God made me, but you guys made me today for who I am that God wanted me to be.
“I will walk my journey of faith in Christ in my life to the end of ages and carry on the love of God in me.”
That kind of transformation is brought about through ministries such as Kolbe.
“We’re all human,” Ewing said. “Many of them have fallen. Some of them have gotten back up.”
Rebecca S. Green writes from Indiana.