By Joseph Sapia |Correspondent
For Kevin Berry, the inspiration first came from two friends that were involved in prison ministries, and an event he had attended. “The theme was prisoners are locked up and forgotten,” Berry said. “(But) God has not forgotten them.”
On Oct. 16 in the Diocesan Chancery, Lawrenceville, Berry, 62, a state scientist who lives in Hopewell Township and is a member of St. Ann Parish, Lawrenceville, joined with some 30 participants in a diocesan program to train volunteers for outreach to inmates, particularly in meeting their spiritual needs.
The diocese’s four counties – Mercer, Burlington, Ocean and Monmouth – has 14 inmate populations in federal, state, county and private facilities, said Vincentian Father Martin McGeough, diocesan coordinator of Jail and Prison Ministry. The diocese is looking for at least “three or four people” to volunteer in each jail or prison, Father McGeough said.
While it is still unclear how many volunteers actually serve the Catholic needs of inmates, Father McGeough said, noting that some parishes may be dealing directly with county jails, the diocesan ministry is reorganizing – getting a more accurate count of current volunteers and recruiting new ones – to carry on its mission.
On this recent night, participants, representing some nine parishes in the diocese and several in the Diocese of Metuchen, as well, were evenly divided between men and women; ranging in age from about the 20s to 70s; some experienced, some new to inmate ministry.
Their work would include such outreach as administering the Eucharist, providing Catholic education and Bible study, said Father McGeough, who has led the ministry for a year and a half, while visiting inmate populations, celebrating Mass, hearing confession and leading Bible studies. Of particular focus for the training session was the Communion service – how volunteers bring the Eucharist from the parishes to inmates and the ways services might be conducted.
“Most places will have Mass at least once a month,” Father McGeough said. “Other places, it’s at least twice a month.” But some of the inmate populations have no Mass or Communion services, Father McGeough said.
Lisa Meseroll, 49, a legal secretary who lives in Hamilton and attends Sacred Heart Parish, Trenton, expressed interest in becoming a volunteer for a variety of reasons.
When Meseroll was younger, she had a boyfriend who got in trouble and committed suicide in jail. She often wondered if things would have been different if there was someone else there to help him. Also, Meseroll, who is a widow, recalled how her religion reinforced her marriage. Now she believes it is time to give back.
“It’s time to help people,” Meseroll said. “People seem to appreciate that. People are hungry for peace in their lives, something to help them. Unfortunately, they’re not turning to God.”
Meseroll’s friend and fellow Sacred Heart parishioner, Melissa Migut, 33, was employed for nine years with the state courts’ Intensive Supervision Program, a probation program, until she became disabled with a leg injury three and a half years ago.
“This is an opportunity for me to jump back in, to help with incarceration and re-integration back into the community,” said Migut.
As for her leg disability changing her life, Migut said, “I figured God had a different calling for me.”
Mercy Sister Karina Haywood, a retired prison chaplain, told the group, “You are our missionaries, our ambassadors. You’re the Lord’s ambassadors and we’re sending you in.
“Have a loving and caring presence,” Sister Karina said. “And a smile.
“Look in someone’s eyes. Some will not look in yours right away. But they (eventually) will.”
For Father McGeough, the ministry is about the value of consistent care and the call for Christians to visit the imprisoned. “There are people in our diocese who have been visiting jails and prisons for more than 15 years, and do it faithfully every week. These volunteers are recognized and appreciated by those in jail, and signs that God and the Church have not abandoned them.”
For more information on prison ministry, or to be considered as a volunteer for a new group of volunteers in 2014, call Father McGeough, 609-403-7198, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
To read story about special honor for Father McGeough, click here.