There was a recurring pattern in many of the letters Ron Zeilinger received as a religious order’s fund development director in Wisconsin 15 years ago. Prison chaplains and inmates were requesting free Catholic Bibles and study courses “like the Protestants have.”
“When I did some research, I didn’t find any Catholic organization of a national scope providing Catholic materials,” said Zeilinger, whose research also revealed that non-Catholic prison volunteers outnumber Catholics ministering in prisons by 40 to 1. A “light bulb” went off in his head, and the idea for a national Catholic outreach serving the spiritual needs of the incarcerated was born.
In 2000, Zeilinger founded Dismas Ministry, named after St. Dismas, “The Good Thief” crucified at Calvary alongside Christ who, from the cross, promised that the repentant criminal would be with him in paradise that very day (Luke 23:43). It coincidentally happened to be the Jubilee Year 2000, with its message of “setting captives free.”
Dismas Ministry has been helping people behind bars find the freedom of the Gospel ever since, providing free Catholic resources to inmates who write and request Catholic Bibles, faith and prayer resources. This past year, it has sent out more than 9,000 Catholic Bibles and 18,000 prayer books.
The “Pray in the Spirit” prayer book includes traditional Catholic prayers, inmate-written prayers, and a popular section featuring stories of saints who have been in prison, like Saints Peter, Paul, Agatha, Perpetua, Francis, John of the Cross and Maximilian Kolbe, to name just a few.
Last summer, Dismas Ministry board members decided to step out in faith and expand the ministry from 43 states to all 50, adding Ohio and Massachusetts as well as states with high prison populations over 100,000: California, Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania. Dismas Ministry has provided Catholic materials to 49 inmates during the last 12 months from all over California.
“Over the past year, it’s been manageable,” said Zeilinger, who noted that the ministry which began with just $40 in the bank is now supported by many Catholic Foundations and individuals, including people who join the ministry’s “Union of Prayer” offering prayer support. “We have been able to honor every request. It’s been growing in California.”
One grateful Dismas Ministry California recipient/inmate from Wasco wrote: “Wow!! A Vatican II missal?! I can now unite myself with the church with my weekday missal! May God bless all of you at Dismas!”
Another inmate from Delano shared in a letter: “I still have not had any Catholic services here at the prison. This prison is very high security with all Level 4 prisoners except for 125 Level 1 prisoners. We maintain the prison and are housed at a different location away from the Level 4 prisoners. I miss the Holy Eucharist and Mass. I have to improvise so I go through the Mass prayers daily to help keep me connected and remembering the order of the Mass. I thank you so very much for all that your ministry has done for me so far.”
“The testimonies from inmates are very humble and sincere,” said Zeilinger, who adds that inmates will often post the certificates they receive for completing Dismas Ministry faith study courses on their cell wall or take them to their parole hearings. “It’s heartening to see how they are touched by the Gospel.
“We can never underestimate the power of the Bible planted in the hands of inmates,” he continued. “It signals someone cares when we provide a gesture of support. It means the world to them. It’s gold in their hands and spirit.”
Dismas ministry board member Amalia Molina, executive director of The Center for Restorative Justice Works in North Hollywood, knows first-hand what is like to be incarcerated.
A native of El Salvador, she was in an immigration detention facility for 16 months in San Pedro in the late ’90s, before she was eventually granted asylum and later became a citizen. Her three children ages 13, 16 and 18 at the time of her incarceration suffered in silence; not even their teachers knew they were coping on their own.
“At one point in my incarceration, I knelt down and cried and prayed to Our Lady: ‘If you take care of my children, I will do everything I can to take care of God’s children here,’” Molina told The Tidings by phone on her way to Northern California July 25. The next day, she would greet three busloads of caregivers and children traveling from Los Angeles for one-day reunions with their mothers or fathers incarcerated at Solano and Folsom state prisons, as part of the annual Mother’s/Father’s Day visits arranged by The Center for Restorative Justice Works during the months of May, June and July.
“A lot of Catholics are leaving church in prison because there’s no Mass or [sacraments like] confession because the prisons are so far and so difficult to get to,” said Molina. I really support the Dismas Ministry because it’s doing a wonderful work supporting our Catholic community in prison [with] Catholic material to keep faith alive.
“Catholic reading material is vital to have a healthy mind and not lose hope,” in prison, said Molina. “When you are in prison, it’s a time you can use to grow and be educated in the faith.”
Log on to http://youtu.be/-h6WUElxyEk for a video on The Tidings YouTube Channel of Ron Zeilinger and Amalia Molina discussing the Dismas Ministry at The Center for Restorative Justice Works in North Hollywood on June 27.