“They still look for God and hold onto hope,” Deacon Christian Nnajiofor says of the men incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix. Courtesy photo
“They still look for God and hold onto hope,” Deacon Christian Nnajiofor says of the men incarcerated at the Federal Correctional Institution, Fort Dix. Courtesy photo
" I want to help bring the message … that you haven’t lost God. "
Ministering to the men incarcerated in the federal prison at Fort Dix has not only impacted the inmates, but also the man who has spent time with them for the past seven years.

Deacon Christian Nnajiofor, who serves in Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton, has made it his personal mission since his ordination to the diaconate to minister to the men housed at the Fort Dix campus of Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst. And that, he said, has brought him a lot of joy.

“I come out feeling fulfilled. I don’t get tired,” Deacon Nnajiofor said. “I’m strengthened by the Holy Spirit.”

Responding to a need he recognized after witnessing the prison ministry of his sponsor, Divine Word Father Edward Tetteh – former pastor of what was then Trenton’s Blessed Sacrament-Our Lady of the Divine Shepherd Parish – Deacon Nnajiofor took to heart the Beatitudes and Scripture passage of Matthew 5: “I was in prison, and you visited me.”

“It was kind of in the back of my mind. Seeing people who have lost everything in life – friends, relatives, marriages, businesses – they have nothing, but they still look for God and hold onto hope,” he explained.

Historically, Deacon Nnajiofor would spend about 4 1/2 to five hours on Sunday afternoons or Mondays going from one side of the prison to another, and doing what his diaconate faculties would allow: holding Bible study, Eucharistic Adoration, Communion services, leading the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and simply lending an open ear.

Following Bible study, he stays to be available to whoever wants to talk to him. “I listen to their pains, their spiritual journey, and give them some encouragement.”

Arriving with Rosary beads and scapulars from the Religious Teachers Filippini of Villa Victoria Academy, Ewing, Deacon Nnajiofor is humbled by the level of appreciation he receives from the prisoners.

“Those spiritual tools and how they put them to use – I wish I could see that [everywhere I minister],” he said. “The way they light up when they know I’m coming … they have a choir, and watching them sing – it’s amazing.”

The inmates have become part of his spiritual family by being embedded in his daily prayer, in which his family participates.

“Thank God for my wife, who was very supportive [across the years], and my four children,” Deacon Nnajiofor said. “When I do my daily prayers … I always tell my family not to forget these people in prison going through a difficult time.”

In July, Father Thomas Barry, parochial vicar in the parishes that make up The Catholic Community of Hopewell Valley, was assigned diocesan chaplain for prison ministry; other priests are now also becoming involved in the ministry, giving Deacon Nnajiofor an opportunity to spend more time at his home parish. But he still goes once a month to visit and minister to the men who are so glad to see him when he arrives.

“[When I was the only one visiting], they were upset they weren’t able to have Confession,” he reflected, “but I tell them [that] when we do our Penitential Rite, ‘You can still confess to God … he grants us absolution until we can have the priest, who acts in the person of Christ … pray that he strengthens you to sin no more.’

“Some of these men are in their late 50s and serving 25 to 40 years,” Deacon Nnajiofor continued. “I want to help bring the message to them that, you have lost material things in life, but you haven’t lost God. He knows your condition, and you have hope [in that].”