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Guide to a new path

Todd County man volunteers time to bring inmates scripture, guidance 

By Bill Vossler


John D. often gives a little cross like this to many of the men that he works with in different prisons. John, who lives in Todd County, helps inmates find a better plan. Photo by Bill Vossler

The first time John D. of Todd County heard the clang of the prison doors shut behind him, he wondered what it must be like to be incarcerated, and wondered too if he would be safe.


“The guards let you in and the guards let you out, and that has an effect on you,” said John. “I wasn’t in the Stearns County Jail as an inmate, but to talk to the prisoners about Jesus.”


That first time was eight years ago. Since then, he has participated in some 25 other retreats, in jails in Stearns, Benton, and Douglas Counties, and most recently, Aitkin County. He said his reaction has really changed.


“Early on I had a lot less of an idea of what was going on. Now I feel completely safe in any of the jails where I’ve participated in a retreat. We have three jail staff members with us.”


Jails have retreats for men and women, John said. “Sometimes in the same room with their own tables and own resources, and sometimes in different rooms, but with the same talk and same speakers at different times. Men work with men, women work with women. Each retreat is a long two-day effort, like in the Douglas County Jail we went Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. until 8:30 p.m. Every day during that time we have mass.”


John said when inmates find out an REC (Residents Encounter Christ) retreat is being held in their jail, “They can request to attend, or get recommended by chaplains or guards. We don’t know how many inmates will attend, but it’s usually about 20,” he said. “The point is to get the inmates centered around Christ in their lives somehow. When I talk to a group, I center it around scripture, and personal testimony. After that Bible-based talk, we have discussions at the tables, two counselors for four REC-ites.”


John sees that many prisoners are feeling a load of guilt. “Many of them have had drug habits, and one of their most difficult tasks is dealing with what they have done wrong. One man couldn’t believe how shabbily he had treated his wife and daughters. He was pacing back and forth in a 12-foot chapel, so I handed him a cross, and told him to take it and put one daughter on his right hand and one on his left hand, and his wife on his heart, and asked him to accept Jesus’ forgiveness. ‘All you have to do is accept it,’ I said. It melted him, he was so relieved. Another man felt guilty for how he treated his grandmother, who had raised him. He had treated her badly, and then ended up in jail. After he talked about it, he felt better.”


John’s New American Bible is well-worn and used, and he brings it to all the prison ministry sessions.

But inmates have other problems, too. John said one young fellow complained the system had let him down. “I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘It just lets you down.’ I challenged him, saying ‘With your brains you could become a medical doctor teaching in college, and instead you’re in here trying to figure out how to beat the system when you get out of here.’ I suggested that he enroll in the Teen Challenge Program to get straightened out from the drugs, and go on from there. A week later he was sent off to Teen Challenge, which was a 13-month program, and there is a good chance he recovered.”


John added, “The longer I‘m involved with the REC-ites the more I find drug abuse is one of the big problems. Many will say, ‘How can I stay off drugs once I get out? As soon as I’m free, my friends will come around…’ I say, ‘They’re not your friends if they want you to get back on drugs again, the very thing that got you jailed for five or seven years. You don’t want to be dealing with them again.’ I suggest that they trust the Lord when they are tempted, and keep themselves centered with Jesus instead of the temptation, something real simple. Every once in a while something you say gets them going in the right direction.”


People might ask whether the retreats are successful. “After retreats several jail participants who were REC-ites have gotten involved as counselors in the retreats,” he said. “At Aitkin recently five people who had gone through REC themselves are now doing retreats, trying to help others in jail that were in the same predicaments. They will tell how their lives were before they got straightened out, and how things are now.”


At a recent retreat, John said one of the REC-ites was leading the talk when a guard stood up and said, “When you came into jail you were all strung out and really a mess, and look at you now. You’re working this retreat, giving talks, back with your family, and have a wonderful wife and children.”


The guards in general are very supportive of the retreats, John said. “They encourage these inmates to come to the retreats. So many of the guards have a good relationship with the people in jail.”


John D. often gives a little cross like this to REC-ites that he works with in different prisons. Photo by Bill Vossler

“The most difficult part of the process is witnessing the pain that the prisoners are suffering,” said John. “It’s really hard, and I’m so helpless. Sometimes they just want to leave the retreat, but we encourage them to stick around and work through the problem. We give each one of them a Bible, and tell them that the Bible says they are forgiven, and that helps them. They need to accept the Lord’s forgiveness--and forgive themselves.”


A week after the retreat, the counselors return. “We want to hear stories of what they did, and how they have changed. At one retreat a fellow was withdrawn, so a floor monitor took him into another room to draw him out. He said he wanted to call his parents.”


A week later when John returned he visited that inmate. “He had called his parents, and his mother answered the phone. ‘Oh!’ she said, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘In the Douglas County jail.’ ‘Thank God!’ his mother said, ‘For the last 19 years Dad and I thought you were dead!’ After that talk with his parents, he was just a different person. These are some reasons I return to do more retreats, because we try to help the inmates realize that Jesus Christ is the Lord. Though we come through the St. Cloud Diocese, inmates do not have to be Catholic to be involved. All jails have priests and religious directors. It’s so rewarding to see the Lord working in these REC-ites. Once they forgive themselves, they get out and get going.”


John added that the retreats also offer inmates a chance to confess. “On Saturday afternoon all the people get a chance to confess to a priest or chaplain or deacon, each of whom offer confession for three hours. Each can do seven inmates during that time, 28 minutes for each. The inmates can sit down and talk about their situation. I always encourage them to go to confession.”


After confession, John said, “They are so relieved to have told someone about their sins, and finding out they are not horrible people, that they are just different. Before the retreat they were down and out, but after the retreat they always seem to be upbeat. I’ve never seen one disappointed after taking the opportunity. Confession really helps them, because they can pass on the guilt they’ve felt for too long. I remind them that Jesus is good, and to stay close to God and Jesus once they get out and they’ll be in good shape. In the long run I try to get them to realize what their gifts are, and work from there.”


John said many of the inmates never had a relationship with a father. So during the retreat you become a father figure. Most of them have never been hugged by a man before, so I put my arm around them. One fellow wrote me later and told me that it really helped him.”


On his way to the Morrison County Jail, John enters through the Morrison County Government building.

One comment John gets regularly is, “‘You could be at home with your wife and kids instead of doing this with us guys in here. Why do give up a weekend just for us?’ For me, the joy of seeing these people grow, and how they appreciate us. When we were cleaning up and carrying stuff out as we were leaving the Douglas County Jail, all of them were standing up and waving goodbye. Just means a lot to us.” 


John wanted to make clear that these retreats involve many people. “It requires a lot of dedicated people, from the coordinators who put the retreats together, to those who put in a lot of hours to do the talks, to all the people who make sure they’ll be there so the program will run once it gets started. Sometimes a few workers from different retreats will be at the next retreat I attend, and sometimes not. And I want to emphasize that I’m just one member of the team. It’s a great program, and for me it’s a calling.”


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