September 1, 2015 // Local

Changing hearts and lives through jail ministry and beyond

Carl Hoffman, left, and Bob Brown team up to minister to inmates at the Allen County Jail in Fort Wayne as part of the jail ministry of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.

By Kay Cozad

FORT WAYNE — As corporal works of mercy are performed regularly throughout the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, especially with the upcoming Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Frances, a group of volunteers are literally visiting the imprisoned at the Allen County Jail in Fort Wayne. Allen County is one of four counties in the diocese (along with St. Joseph, Kosciusko and Huntington) whose parishioners have come together to form a team of volunteers who aim to learn from the experiences of those in jail, and how incarceration affects the community.

Under the direction of Audrey Davis, Social Justice Ministries Coordinator, committed Catholic volunteers have begun to be seen by the jail chaplaincy staff as co-laborers in the field, holding Bible studies for inmates, teaching life skills classes, delivering appropriate reading materials with the occasional opportunity to enter into prayer and conversation on each cellblock, procuring undergarments and other needed materials for the inmates, and helping more parish priests become familiar with their county jail and gain the clearance needed for making pastoral visitations.

Two volunteers, Bob Brown, parishioner of St. Jude Parish in Fort Wayne, and St. Vincent de Paul Parish member Carl Hoffman have teamed up to serve in the jail ministry after meeting at an informational gathering in spring of 2014. Hoffman felt called to the ministry after his parish ARISE faith-sharing group studied the corporal works of mercy and realized none of its members had ever visited the imprisoned. “I didn’t have an excuse not to go and I had the time,” says Hoffman humbly. Brown agreed.

Following acceptance into the ministry after the rigorous application process, both men signed up to teach a life skills class once a month offering job interviewing skills, resume writing and more for male inmates who were nearing the end of their sentence. During the class the team offers suggested reading materials and information on Blue Jacket, an organization that provides a four-week employment preparation program and a store providing donated business attire for those seeking employment.

They also team weekly to deliver books on the book cart to five different cellblocks. The books, Hoffman says, are donated from a variety of sources, including from his own wife Carole and her friends who have purchased many at garage sales.

In the months this dynamic duo has ministered in the jail, they have come to learn that underlying the need to learn new skills for a better life following release, the inmates also hunger for meaning and purpose in their lives. Self worth is learned, says Brown, who was once a teacher and coach, as well as a businessman. He notes that before a person can learn a new skill he or she must “know they are special — that there is a future.”

One inmate Hoffman became acquainted with typically displayed a peace-filled attitude. “He usually had a smile on his face,” says Hoffman, adding, “He never seemed down.” When asked about his cheerful demeanor, the inmate simply responded that he accepted his incarceration as justice for his wrongdoing and was moving on.

Following the arrival of a new inmate demonstrating a high level of stress, Hoffman suggested that the upbeat inmate minister to him in his angst. “I asked him to look after the young guy. I told him to practice being a leader here,” says Hoffman, who notes that having a purpose keeps the men from being so influenced by the negatives around them.  “He did it,” says Hoffman, “It just warmed my heart.”

In the ministry, Hoffman and Brown noted that a number of inmates who attended life skills class while in jail were rearrested following their release and incarcerated once again. Frustrated with the high rate of recidivism at the Allen County Jail the two, who are passionately committed to the jail ministry and the men it serves, embarked on a brainstorming venture to address the need for additional life skill building for inmates who are released from jail.

Brown says, “We started looking at post release, and how to spend time with the men.”

The two have begun organizing the book “University of Success” by Og Mandino into a 13-week course, creating a program that may provide an opportunity for newly released inmates, their family members and other struggling members of the community.

The program, titled “Character and Personal Development,” will be held at St. Henry Church on the southeast side of Fort Wayne. Brown hopes to hold two classes each week for 13 weeks with the first class scheduled for 9 a.m. on Sept. 2. Each class will cover two chapters of “University of Success,” and upon successful completion of the program participants will receive a certificate. Even more importantly, they will have gained a few extra friends who can continue thereafter as changing habits and discovering a new definition of success can be difficult for anyone.

The program, which will be led by Brown and jail ministry member Dan Fogarty, is open to any interested inmate released from the Allen County Jail, those who participate in the area food stamp program, their family members or anyone just needing a second chance.

This nascent program is one example of what members of the Body of Christ can do when they are attentive to the Holy Spirit, and take things one step at a time. “The first training session will be a success,” Fogarty believes, “if we can learn from those who have experienced these issues, what they need in order to realize their immense intrinsic value. If supported and challenged, the participants could even put us out of a job, or at least we can all work together in helping others.”

Brown, Hoffman and Fogarty hope that the pilot will be informative for how to develop the program, and that more parishioners will come forward to offer their gifts and talents. For more information on how to volunteer, contact Dan Fogarty at [email protected].

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