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Tuesday, 27 September 2011 14:36

A privileged ministry with women in prison

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Ministry: how I've come to understand it over the years

The kind of world
one carries about
in oneself is the
important thing
and the world outside takes
all its graces, colour
and value from that.       James Russel Lowell, 1819-1891

There is a way in which I believe that we are all ministers- that we are involved in ministry all the time whether we do this well or poorly. It is in the every day, in my ordinary activities and choices that I am becoming a minister. It is in the way I smile, am kind, affectionate and supportive that I influence others for better or worse. Because, I believe that MINISTRY is primarily an inside job. My inner choices influence others at an external level.

MINISTRY is a way of living. It is not something that we leave at the office at the end of the day. It is a way of valuing and thinking that springs from deep within.

MINISTRY involves us in a never-ending opportunity to reflect on our life and that enables us to adjust and recommit. A good MINISTER welcomes the opportunity to learn about herself and the world and looks forward to new discoveries and interests.

I commenced as a Catholic Chaplain in the Bandyup Women's Prison in October 2004.

I brought to this new ministry much of what I had learned in the years prior to this. However, what was expected of me in this new role would unfold as I became familiar and more comfortable with life within a secure women’s prison.

My experience as a Loreto Sister had provided me with many opportunities to develop skills as a teacher of Primary and Secondary students. I spent several years working in Adult Faith Education. This was followed by an experience as Leader of a developing Catholic Community within a new suburban development in Sydney’s west. I have also facilitated/ (and still do) women’s conversation circles and this has given me the opportunity to work in the area on Interfaith dialogue with Muslim, Jewish and Christian women.

Each of these experiences had required me to interact in the lives of people as they negotiated the ups and downs of life’ journey.

Coming into Prison Chaplaincy would call upon much of what I had learned in the past and yet in this new position, I would learn so much more about myself and also about the world in which these women had lived.

So, what have I learned and what do I consider essential aspects of this privileged ministry?
During the first six months or so, I followed in the footsteps of an experienced Sister who had been working within the prison system for about 25 years. I observed how she interacted with the women. How she listened, supported, encouraged and challenged. Slowly, I was able to bring my own experience and personal gifts into my role as Chaplain.

I would like to quote from a young WEST AUSTRALIAN writer, Alice Nelson, who had this to say about Ministry at a recent conference I attended. The question she posed was:- HOW CAN A GLOBAL CIVILIZATION WITH A HEART BE CREATED?

She said, “What I have discovered is that there is an equally strong set of needs that we call spiritual or meaning needs: people want their lives to have some higher meaning and purpose than simply accumulating money, power, sexual gratification and fame – they want their lives to be connected to something about which they can feel has transcendent value. And they hunger for personal relationships, families and communities in which they can experience themselves as being cared for and recognised in all their specificity and uniqueness and spiritual beauty – not only for what they can ‘deliver’ or ‘do’ for others, not how they will be ‘of use’, but simply because they are valuable and deserving of love and caring just for who they are as embodiments of the sacred.

As Church – and in MINISTRY – we are an intentional group of people who see themselves as allies to each other in advancing this way of thinking, people who are unashamedly utopian and willing to fight for their highest ideals, yet unashamedly humble in knowing that we don’t know all we need to know to do the healing that needs to be done.”

While not every woman would articulate her needs as expressed by Nelson, many of the women I have met in the Prison do desire at a deeper level to do something good with their lives even if they are presently incarcerated through making poor choices.

As a Chaplain, I consider moving around the prison and taking the women where and as they are - is the most appropriate way to engage with them. Conversation may be nothing more than a simple greeting. Yet by doing this they become familiar with us and we can come to know them. Through this the women come to trust and have confidence in us.

Compassion, empathy, listening, encouraging and challenging form a significant part of what I consider is the ministry of a Chaplain within the prison.

The Sunday Service, whether it is Eucharist or Liturgy of the Word with Communion, is a very important time for the women to seek and connect with the sacred and to assist in the integration of the joys and difficulties they have and are experiencing.

Storytelling, listening and sharing with each other at this time is often quite profound. This provides the women with the time to reflect and to articulate prayers for their own concerns. It provides a space for them to listen and engage with the Scriptures and to sing appropriate songs.

So what do I consider are essential aspects of my ministry within the Women’s Prison?

• We have a responsibility to familiarise ourselves with Prison Policy, Vision and the Strategic Plan.
• We need to know and address disturbing facts such as the overrepresentation of Aboriginal women in custody.
• We need to compliment the work of the Prison Officers while understanding our role to be different.
• We must be able to work alongside the Ministers from the other Christian Churches.
• I need to keep myself focused through my personal prayer, reflection and supervision.
At the end of a day working within the Prison it is important for me to take some time recall who I have met and spent time with and what I have learned about myself along the way.

I am inspired by the following paragraph take from an article written by Marnie Kennedy rscj - RETREATS ON THE STREETS.

“The poor are always there waiting to be our evangelizers, the mirrors of our own brokenness and the face of a deeply involved and compassionate God. There we find the graced revelation of the God of liberation working where least expected. The marginalized are indeed the litmus paper showing up the true state of society. They also reveal to us the heart of God drawn irresistibly towards them in their struggles.”

In conclusion, I would like to return to where I began because I believe that our Ministry is an outcome of who we are.

“The kind of world one carries about in oneself is the important thing, and the world outside takes all its graces, colour and value from that”     (James Russell Lowell 1819-1891)

Marg Finlay ibvm (Prepared for the WATAC CONFERENCE September 2011)