Lena Shipley is passionate about jail ministry because she believes it fulfills a deep need and bears good fruit.
More than two years ago Shipley, who is pastoral associate at St. Francis and St. Clare Parish in Waterloo and Seneca Falls, teamed up with several parish volunteers as well as the parish’s retired priest in residence, Father Roy Kiggins, to found such a ministry at the Seneca County Jail.
"I have always found the inmates to be very appreciative of our presence," Shipley remarked. Jail ministry planted seeds of faith
The volunteers help out when Father Kiggins celebrates Mass with one group of inmates while Shipley leads a Communion service with another. Many of the inmates who choose to attend the Masses and Communion services like to actively participate in them, Shipley said.
"They are very receptive to the word of God. They offer to proclaim the readings and are often interactive in discussion on the themes. There are also sacred moments of personal testimony," she said.
Inmates are encouraged to speak up and voice their own intentions at the appropriate times during the Masses and Communion services, and to ask the volunteers any questions they may have, said Pat Battley, one of the jail ministry’s volunteers. Sometimes the inmates ask whether God or other people will forgive them, she noted.
"I’ll say your God is a loving and forgiving God, but you have to come to him," Battley said.
Battley said the first time she ministered in the jail, the inmates looked her in the eye and she felt as if they were looking into her soul and trying to see if she was going to judge them. Once the inmates are shown compassion and love, however, it doesn’t take long for them to open up to the volunteers. Fellow volunteer Jan Scarrott brings prayer cards and rosaries made by the parish’s rosary-making group, and those are quite popular among the inmates. One of the most sought-after prayer cards, Shipley said, is inspired by Matthew 25:36. On the front it has a picture of Jesus behind bars, with the words, "I was in prison and you visited me."
"The inmates like that prayer card," she said. "For some reason, beyond what the inmates realize, (there) is a need to be connected to Jesus, who identified with them. Inmates need to realize that despite whatever infraction put them behind bars, they are always loved and forgiven by a merciful God. We, God’s ambassadors on earth, need to remind the incarcerated that salvation is for all. We need to bring them a reason to hope and trust themselves again."
The jail ministry has proven to be fertile soil for planting seeds of faith, Shipley said, noting that she strives to make inmates aware of the spiritual freedom that comes only through Jesus. Scarrott said she hopes this message gets through to the inmates.
"Since I have children of my own that don’t go to church, you kind of hope that you can get somebody else to come back to church," she said, noting that the work is rewarding.
"You can really sense you’re only an instrument in the hands of the Lord and the Holy Spirit is at work, and you can’t take any credit for it," she added.