Hope and guidance behind bars
Spiritual hope and guidance, along with music, are aspects of a Roman Catholic prison ministry that relies on a seven-come-11 cadre in Northern Nevada.
At the Warm Springs Correctional Center, which is behind the old Nevada State Prison in Carson City, seven ordained ministers – bishops, priests and deacons – and 11 lay ministers are actively involved in this providing spiritual guidance to the inmates, reported Deacon Michael Johnson of the St. Teresa of Avila Parish. Johnson, chaplain and coordinator of the Prison Ministry for the Diocese of Reno, works with chaplains Richard Snyder and James Stogner, Jr. of the Nevada Department of Corrections.
Snyder, an Episcopal priest, said when a group from the ministry visits Warm Springs, it increases the excitement, especially for the large percentage of Hispanics who are among the 500 or more inmates there. Many people of Hispanic heritage are Roman Catholic and the combination of ordained and lay ministers provide services are in both English and Spanish, he said.
“I think they bring a kind of real, energized life to the inmates here,” he said. He recalled a particular highlight earlier this year when retired Bishop Phillip F. Straling came in for Easter.
Just last Saturday, Deacon Johnson was joined by Deacon Joe Garcia and three lay ministers for morning services at Warm Springs. The trio of lay ministers included Deborah Lundberg, George Whalen and John Sobraske. Lundberg is from Corpus Christi Parish, while the others are from St. Teresa’s.
“We try to have a priest come once a month,” said Deacon Johnson, adding that they conduct mass and hear confessions while they are in the prison.
Deacon Garcia, the eldest among the group, as the contingent left Warm Springs was praised by his colleagues for a lengthy commitment to prison ministry. He did it first in California for two decades and has more than a dozen additional years doing so since coming to Nevada.
But the program reaches more inmates than just those in Warm Springs. The diocesan prison ministry includes three correctional facilities and four work camps in Northern Nevada.
The ministry at each is of presence and spiritual hope – presence being a support bulwark, spiritual hope covering the services and other religious matters.
“The inmates really appreciate that we take the time,” said Deacon Johnson. He offered written quotes from inmates who were asked about their opinions on the ministry.
“We live under such a stressful situation all the time,” said one. “It just relaxes me when I come” to services.
“Because you believe in us,” wrote another, “it gives us the strength to carry on.”
The religious services can include the sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Recondilitation, and Anointing of the Sick, according to Deacon Johnson. He said the volunteer ministers also reach out and interact with inmates on a 1-to-1 basis.
Services are open to inmates of all faiths, he reported, and such interfaith interaction adds to broadening the understanding of others’ beliefs.
For example, he said, a Muslim sings in the inmate choir at Northern Nevada Correctional Center and a Jehovah Witness plays keyboards at Warm Springs. Each institution has a choir and uses instruments to help enhance the services.
The ministry extended last year to aiding in the presentation of short plays written by inmates, including the music involved, which resulted in multiple performances.
Inmates also played the parts and, Deacon Johnson said, those not in the plays attended to see the results. He said all the performances “were packed.”