By Joan D. Warren
“I was in prison, and you came to visit me” (Mt). 25:36
BOURNE — Making mistakes is a part of life — some are small, some are big, and some are immoral and break the law. Those who are incarcerated for their transgressions may lose their right to freedom, but they will always be children of God. No matter what someone has done, he or she deserves the opportunity to hear the word of God and find the truth of the message of Christ.
Since 1993, priests, Sisters, deacons and volunteers have been bringing the Word of God to incarcerated men and women by offering Residents Encounter Christ (REC) at the Barnstable of Correctional Facility in Bourne. The term “residents” is the preferred way to address those housed in jail.
The mission of the REC program is to invite and encourage all residents to have a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. REC volunteers invite residents to form a Christian community, recognizing that God is present when two or more come together in His name. People of any faith are invited to join.
The REC team consists of 20-30 members, both men and women. Their goal is to try to break the cycle of recidivism and to encourage residents, many of whom were victims of abuse who turned to alcohol and drugs to cope, consider the hope offered by following Christ as they also work the 12-Step program to sobriety and productive living.
Based on a REC program in Springfield, it was brought to the Cape by Chaplain Deacon Dick Murphy in 1993. Since then, the Bristol County House of Correction and Jail in North Dartmouth has taken up a similar program.
“We went to Springfield and learned about REC. The overwhelming message we heard is that the Eucharist is the center of the ministry. I am a joke teller, so residents started to sign up for a retreat knowing I was going to be telling jokes and that it would be a good time. It also helped that they knew I was a drunk, too,” Deacon Murphy said.
Before the program started, there was a 65 percent recidivism rate: those who return to incarceration. After REC started, the recidivism among participants dropped to 10 percent.
“It was highly successful. That is the hand of God. It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it,” Deacon Murphy said.
Patterned after the Cursillo retreats, the REC Team members sit with residents, give talks and share their lives. They try to show the residents that there is hope in following Christ.
Service to the Lord and building a faith community with residents is done primarily during an intense three-day weekend program in the prison with timely follow-up meetings supporting other Catholic activities like Bible study, Mass, and fellowship. The major theme for each weekend retreat is to initiate a change of heart by realizing the need for change, experiencing God’s grace, and embracing the opportunities of a new day with the Lord.
Diocesan clergy and deacons continue to play a vital role in this ministry. Father Riley Williams, pastor at Holy Name Parish in Fall River is the Catholic chaplain at the Barnstable County Correctional Facility as well as the spiritual director for the REC program. Deacon David Boucher offers a Communion service to both the sentenced and unsentenced men twice a month. Several priests come into the jail on the weekends to hear confessions, and a priest comes in to celebrate Mass on Sunday.
When current lay team leader Theresa Brosnan joined the REC ministry in 1996, it was a natural calling to do God’s work by using her time and talent. As a former reading specialist in the Barnstable School System, she had many years’ experience patiently teaching and guiding her students.
Little did she know what a difference it would make to the lives of those she served and her personal relationship with the Lord and her husband who later joined in the ministry.
“I went in, and it changed my life,” she said. “My husband Jack saw how deeply it moved me and said he wanted what I had. We did this as a couple for years until his passing 14 years ago. Doing this ministry together showed our two sons the beauty of doing God’s work. It helped us grow closer as a family.”
Tim Bulla, a parishioner at Corpus Christi Parish in East Sandwich, is relatively new to the ministry and is in awe of what Brosnan and her team have accomplished over the years.
“I have been a part of this ministry for only seven months, but leader Theresa Brosnan has been ministering to both men and women at BHC for many years. The residents love her to death,” he said.
“The majority of the volunteers has been faithfully going weekly, as well as facilitating retreats for more than 10 years. It’s simply outstanding their commitment,” Bulla said.
“The reason they keep coming year after year, month after month is to share Christ and the ‘Good News’” he said. “The residents are so incredibly grateful that we come and their commitment to know and follow Jesus is astounding. All of us volunteers say and tell the residents that we learn from them and get more from them than we can possibly express.”
To participate as a volunteer for a REC weekend one must sign a background data sheet for clearance to enter the jail and do a three-hour training session. Each program volunteer will be reviewed for approval by the senior chaplain for active membership in an established religious community, conformity to Department of Correctional Services policies and procedures, and endorsement of an outside religious group.
Teams start preparation for retreats six to eight weeks in advance, with the assignment of talks, practicing of talks and choosing of table partners on the weekend. There are usually five talks a day followed by discussion at the tables and then making of posters and presentation of the posters of each table to the groups summarizing what the table members felt was important after each talk. Those in music ministry play guitars and lead singing on the weekend.
REC also provides outreach services to those who have transitioned from incarceration.
A few years ago, Brosnan helped two women move into an apartment. REC paid for the move, but volunteers did the physical work.
“We so blessed for all you did for us,” said Jennifer, to them after the move. She had been woman who had been through REC at the correctional facility. “You helped me and my friend Carolyn move and were so incredibly generous to us. I remember we had loads of stuff to move and you helped us when we needed it the most.”
There are several ways to participate in REC. One is to become a member of the REC team and help, facilitate weekend retreats. Another is to write notes of encouragement called palanca. A third is through financial help which helps pay for the cost of Bibles, Rosaries, and materials. Each resident is given a Bible and Rosary to keep.
Those who would like to donate may send their contribution to REC, P.O. Box 1171, Barnstable, Mass., 02630.