Unlock the Gospel
Most would call them inmates, prisoners, or convicts, but Raul Soto calls them “brothers.”
The offenders at Bridgeport Correctional Center are brothers, Soto explained, because “I try to put myself in their shoes. We’ve all done dumb things.”
Soto coordinates a team of about 25 local Catholics who share their faith and their time with inmates at the Bridgeport Correctional Center.
The prison ministry team from the tri-parish community of St. John the Baptizer in Bridgeport, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Decatur, and St. Mary in Jacksboro leads spiritual activities at the prison Monday through Friday, including Bible studies and RCIA in English and Spanish.
But the week’s high point is Wednesday evening.
Inmates pray the Rosary while Father Richard Collins hears confessions. Afterward, Fr. Collins celebrates a bilingual Mass with about 45 men and a few parish volunteers, including Joanne Chase, who plays the guitar and sings with Soto.
Chase and Soto were invited to help about two years ago by longtime prison ministry volunteer Howard Biel.
“I didn’t feel qualified,” said Chase, who explained she “never found it easy to share her faith, and I was never any good at it.”
Her previous parish ministry experience included music ministry and serving as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion.
Now, she leads a lectio divina group at the prison, guiding the men through a deliberate reflection on a Scripture passage.
“I still feel like I don’t know enough,” she continued. “But I let the Holy Spirit work. I’m just planting seeds.”
The men who attend are eager to learn and grow deeper in their faith, she observed. “There’s a lot of hope. I see men who want to change; they want to be there [in Bible study].”
It’s not uncommon for the offenders to ask the grandmother of 16 what she is doing there. She responds, “I’m just a sinner like you, trying to get to heaven. We are all sinners; we all make mistakes.”
“They are like children,” said Chase, a parishioner at Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “They just want to know they are loved; that they are cared for. We let them know that God loves them, and we love them too. We’ll be there for them. We’ll be someone who cares.
“Everyone needs to know they are special. Whatever they’ve done, they can come back to God,” she continued.
Soto explained that many of the inmates never have visitors, because of physical distance or strained family relationships. He brings the Gospel message to them with a side of hugs, and some inmates tell him they haven’t been hugged in years.
“Well, get ready,” he warns. “It won’t be the last time.”
At the margins
Catholic prison ministry at the high-security Bridgeport Unit, which can hold up to 520 men, is unique among the prisons in the diocese.
Fr. Collins, the sacramental minister for prisons in the Diocese of Fort Worth, regularly visits Bridgeport and two other state prisons in the diocese, plus the Tarrant County jail and a federal prison in Fort Worth.
He said the dedication and commitment of the Bridgeport prison volunteers, the size of the team, and good working relationships with the prison’s warden and chaplain allow the volunteers to offer a broad variety of programs.
The volunteers’ efforts are not in vain. In his 10 years in prison ministry, Fr. Collins has seen that “Jesus has the power to change lives.”
Not only does the prison ministry benefit the participating offenders, but it aids the state and society, according to Fr. Collins.
“The reality is the majority of these men will be released back in the community,” said Fr. Collins, who said regular access to the sacraments and faith-building activities can be a major positive influence and change the behavior of the offenders, leading to a calmer atmosphere at the prison.
However, state prisons are generally located in rural areas, with few parishioners to volunteer to visit and lead classes.
This fact weights heavy on Soto’s heart. “There are thousands of men, and some women, who we do not reach,” he said. “There’s a huge need to spread God’s love.”
This April, the Bridgeport prison ministry team will share the Gospel at the Allred Unit in Iowa Park. They will hold a three-day retreat for 50 of the more than 3,000 inmates at the prison near Wichita Falls.
Volunteers offered the first Kolbe Prison Ministries retreat in the diocese at the Bridgeport Correctional Center in 2018, and they have continued to conduct the retreats there each November and March.
Even volunteers who don’t live near the facilities can prepare handouts for lessons, write letters of encouragement to retreat participants, and support the ministry with prayer, said Fr. Collins. Funds donated to the Annual Diocesan Appeal help pay for Bibles, rosaries, and other expenses for prison ministry.
Least of these
The team of prison ministry volunteers from the tri-parish community comprises men and women of various ages and backgrounds, but they have a common passion to serve the least of these.
“It’s a direct commandment from Our Lord,” said Soto, a parishioner at St. John the Baptizer. “It’s in Scripture. The Lord commands us to help the forgotten, the marginalized — whether they are homeless, whether they are hungry. In this case, when they are in prison. We’re being Christ to others.”
Both Soto and Chase say the service has blessed their lives.
Chase said her prison visits bring her “a peace, a joy that comes only from God.”
Soto said, “We live in the greatest country on earth. God provides, and we have so many blessings. We’re asked to share that with others.”