Joys of prison ministry
Franciscan Hospitaller Sister Rosita Gomes began carrying letters for prisoners and their families in Mumbai in early 1980s, before the Prison Ministry of India was formed as a voluntary organization under the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
It was Sr Gomes who introduced me to the prison ministry. I used to accompany her to a juvenile home in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, on her weekly visits for prayer and recreational activities.
One day, after our programs, I was about to get up from the floor when someone pulled at my Sari. I looked down to see an 8-year-old girl with pleading eyes, holding my sari tight.
“Sister, please take me and my brother out from here,” she said with tears flowing down her rosy cheeks.
They had lost her parents and the relatives put them in the juvenile home. “Now we have to go through the law to release them,” Sister Gomes said after narrating their story.
This happened more than two decades ago. However, that child’s face remains alive in my mind even today. Her “pleading eyes” slowly drove me to do whatever I could for prisoners, especially when I was in Guwahati, Assam, for four years.
The weekend visits with other priests and Sisters to prison have left indelible memories.
The opportunities to involve in prison ministry, family visits, tuition to the poor children and similar services were golden moments for me to get closer to the lives of the marginalized in our society.
The welcome we received in their shacks, their love and acceptance, as we entertained them in our parlors on a few occasions or listened to their stories of woes and pain enriched ourselves. We lived in a locality that had little Christian presence.
During our prison visits, it was difficult for us to walk through the smelling, marshy road leading to the cells of women. As the security people unlocked the gates, I thought of ways and means to unlock their bonded lives to freedom.
Fear did lurk in our hearts as we were surrounded by angry, disappointed and sad women. However, police protected us from those suffering sisters behind bars. They were caught in their crimes. Some were innocent.
Poverty had dragged many of them to crimes.
Many times I witnessed the tears of penitence in women condemned to rigorous imprisonment. Their cry, “I do not know why I did it then,” revealed the desperate situations that had forced them to commit the crime. Each had a story to tell: a drunken husband, sick children, unemployment, abandonment by relatives, and no source of help even for their daily meal.
Rukmini’s husband was a drunkard. And her son, eldest of three children, was chronically sick. She needed money to treat him. One of her acquaintances offered her a way out: ‘Take this parcel to Assam and you will be rewarded a good sum which will help to treat your son.” She believed him and boarded the train to Guwahati ignorant of the content of the parcel. She was arrested for possessing drugs as she got down from the train. “Now my husband is dead too. There is no one for my children,” she said shedding copious tears.
Jamila, with a little girl child, was a new comer. Initially she kept away from us but we noticed that she was crying. After a few visits she came near us and blurted out in Assamese, “I do not know why I did it. I am sorry.” She in a fit of anger had cut off her husband’s head. He used to come home drunk every evening and beat her. But she really did not want to kill him, she told us.
Our weekly visits to their dingy rooms, where they huddled together day after day were like rays of sun on a wintry day. When the rays of acceptance and joy entered their lives and lit their faces, our hearts were filled with joy that we have been used as channels of Christ’s love.
It was confirmed by the jail superintendent when we missed the visits for two consecutive weeks. “Sisters, they are waiting anxiously for you every week. Your visits bring them comfort.”
The prison authorities were kind to us.
Singing bhajans, praying together Our Lord’s prayer, sharing spontaneous prayers, all created a bond between us and the prisoners that strengthened further as days passed. We took care not to miss our visits whether rain or shine, winter or summer.
“Never ask them of their past” was a cardinal rule given to us by our coordinator. And we followed it strictly. Yet the prisoners laid bare before us the secrets of their hearts. This enabled us to re-establish their connections with their children and families who had abandoned them for years.
Some sisters in our team took much trouble to visit their families in distant places. They had to search out their families, counsel them and convince them to visit their relatives in prison. It bore fruit. Our eyes would well up with joy seeing the happiness on the prisoners’ faces after their relatives’ visit to reestablish contacts.
The coordinator told me, “We have visited over 25 houses of the inmates. We have sent their children to different places for technical training, hotel management, and auxiliary nursing programs. Some of them have completed their course and are employed.”
Once the Sisters traveled 35 km to an interior village where they found out the daughter of a prisoner had completed her tenth grade securing first class. The grandmother did not want her to continue her studies but to help her in the farm. “We counseled her and took the girl and enrolled her in a boarding school.”
We did all this while doing full time jobs in our congregations. Those who had time visited the families that was both challenging and time consuming. Some of us taught people different crafts, while others went “begging” for their prisoners.
We forget our own pains when we learn to listen to the pains of others. On weekend afternoons, when we boarded buses in the hot sun, after a quick lunch, we were sure that we would receive much more than we would give those people. The prison gate which was once a sign of fear for us gradually became a welcoming place with friendly guards who would recognize us and usher us in as messengers of good tidings.
We had a mission. We wanted those men and women to stand on their feet and lead a good life after they completed their term of punishment. For this, we taught them career-oriented crafts. They made variety of flowers and handmade baskets and we sold them in parishes that fetched them a good sum.
We also cheered their lives through games and celebrations at Christmas, Diwali, Rakshabandhan and other festivals together with male prisoners. Many told us that those celebrations helped them forget their pain and made them earn for freedom.
One significant day was when we organized the release of a book of poems written by one of the prisoners at Guwahati Press Club.
When we set out to do good for the less privileged we would receive help from many others in the form of gifts and money. We felt happy to beg with dignity for our less privileged brethren.
Our experience found echo in Pope Francis’ address to the Brazilian Bishops in 2013, “Unless we train ministers capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hope and disappointments, of mending their brokenness, what hope can we have for our present and future journey?
Maters India – September 7, 2015 Story By: