Awareness Retreats Nuture Inmates' Faith and Hope for the Future
I’ve come simply to tell you that God loves you with an infinite love.
– Pope Benedict XVI in a 2011 address to inmates of Rome’s Ribibbia prison
Larry is a clean-cut Catholic with a warm smile, sincere eyes and true passion for his faith. He’s a lector at his parish and a former inmate of the Allen Correctional Institute. He spent 10 years, eight months and 26 days in prison. He’s been abandoned by some friends and family members. When he was incarcerated, he felt guilt and shame. He agonized over whether he could ever be accepted in his hometown when he was released.
“When my world came crashing down around me, I knew where I needed to go. I was that lost sheep that needed to be found,” says Larry. He began attending weekly Mass when he was at the Lima Correctional Institute before being transferred to Allen. Then, at Allen, his quest for faith took root. Participating in Awareness Retreats supported by Catholic Charities gave him hope. “They were the first outside people to help, encourage and motivate me on my spiritual journey,” Larry says.
“They let us know there are people who see us as children of God. “They gave me such hope that people would be willing to include me. Hope is so important and so many people don’t have that when they’re in prison,” Larry explains. “
A lot of people didn’t have people to visit them. It was as close as they got to a visit from someone who cared about them.”
Prison is a place of hardened hearts, too. “You always have to be a tough guy in prison,” he says. Consequently, the retreats started with icebreakers that had the inmates “singing and twirling around.” Larry reveals, “I began to realize we don’t have a lot of opportunity to laugh. It lifted a burden when we just had an opportunity to be silly. We didn’t have to worry about being a tough guy for the first time in a long time. You could just be yourself.
“It’s hard to quantify what this does to guys,” Larry says. An especially powerful exercise aims to validate their dignity and worthiness. The men and retreat volunteers – one on one, face-to-face –rotated partners and shared compassion with phrases like, “When I look into your eyes I know you are forgiven, and when I look into your eyes I know Jesus loves you.”
“Tears start coming down and lips are quivering. These grown men weep because a lot of people don’t have people who care about them. It’s very emotional.”
Today, he serves this prison ministry by volunteering at Awareness Retreats, as does his wife. “God called me. I’m returning the service. I know I couldn’t have done it by myself,” he says.