Unlocking Hearts

April 17, 2003
Unlocking Hearts
By Kristen Fox / SUN contributing writers
Oneida/Madison Catholic Charities to host restorative justice events

Visiting those in prison is among the corporal works of mercy Jesus commanded to His followers. Yet, this is often one of the most forgotten ministries of the Church. Despite prisons in many cities providing ample opportunity to get involved, many are still hesitant to go behind prison walls.

Oneida/Madison Catholic Charities will hold several events in the coming weeks focusing on the theme of restorative justice –– offering those convicted of crimes the opportunity to restore themselves through treatment of their physical, emotional and spiritual needs. “It is time to put the theme of social justice into motion. We see these values preached in the Gospel, but some people do not know how to help,” said Michelle Bennett, social concerns coordinator for Catholic Charities in Oneida and Madison Counties. “Even though there are prisons nearby, how many people think it is possible to visit those in prisons? It can be a rewarding experience.”

Kicking off the series on April 21 will be a lecture by David Kaczynski, Theodore Kaczynski’s (the unabomber) brother, and Gary Wright, one of Theodore’s victims. On April 28, Terry Richey, who works with volunteer services at Oneida Correctional Facility, will speak on aspects of prison ministry. On May 5, Raymond Wehner will share his experience as a volunteer in the Oneida prison system. All three events are free and will take place at 7 p.m. in the Oneida/Madison Catholic Charities Auditorium, located at 1408 Genesee St. in Utica.

Richey, during her presentation, will talk about what types of volunteer services are needed in prisons. She will also explain to people how volunteering in the prisons can be a very rewarding experience, said Toni Belmont, who serves on Oneida/Madison Catholic Charities board of directors and helped to organize the upcoming events.

“The work that Terry does with volunteers is invaluable to the prisons,” said Belmont. “I think that what she has to say will open people’s eyes to the world of jail ministry.” Wehner will offer a presentation on restorative justice from the point of view of a volunteer in the prison system. Wehner is a volunteer with Residents Encounter Christ (REC) Weekends, an inter-denominational Christian ministry modified for the prison environment. The REC Team conducts the weekends at each of the area prisons: Oneida Correctional Facility, Mohawk Correctional Facility, Marcy Correctional Facility and Mid-State Correctional Prison.

Wehner, along with approximately 15 other volunteers, enters the prison for a three-day period to share his faith in the Gospel and to minister to those convicted of violent crimes. They encourage inmates to attend Mass and other services to experience a Christian community. Wehner, an avid guitar player, will also speak on the effect that music has on inmates during the REC weekends. Belmont believes the happiness that volunteers like Wehner bring is for many inmates a light in the darkness.

“To many of the inmates, this group really makes their weekends. They bring into the prisons a joyful and fun environment along with their message of faith and love,” explained Belmont. To encourage the participants of the REC weekends to continue in their spiritual growth and Christian community, the REC team goes back to the prison about a month later to do a REC reunion, bringing the participants together again.

It is a vital to reach out to those inmates in prison and help restore them to a sense of wholeness. Although the majority of people on the outside would like to keep offenders behind bars and avoid contact with them, Bennett said that they are still children of God and deserve to be treated with dignity. “Yes, the inmates have made mistakes, but they are still children of God,” Bennett stated. “We hope that through this program people will begin to see prison ministry in a new light through compassion, love, forgiveness and understanding.” Catholic Charities is dedicated to enacting Christ’s teachings by responding to people and their needs, through service, advocacy and empowerment. For more information on social justice events, call Catholic Charities of Oneida and Madison Counties at (315) 724-2158.

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