MOUNT ANGEL — Curtis Gibson was jailed for almost four years for a white-collar crime. In the end, the Portland man says, it was a good thing, because that is where his faith was forged.
During a prison ministry workshop June 10 at Mount Angel Abbey, Gibson told 60 participants that prisons and jails are frightening places because inmates seek to grab territory and secure influence.
“No one is there to make you feel comfortable,” said Gibson, 54. “There is a constant hustle. What can I get? Whom can I get? Everyone demands respect, but does nothing to deserve it.”
In his cell, Gibson began to read Scripture for solace and received religious magazines and newspapers. He welcomed visits from Catholic volunteers.
It was that foundation, he says, that prepared him to succeed when he was released last year. Unlike many ex-convicts, he has a job, a home and a car.
There are more than 2 million inmates in U.S. prisons and jails.
Parish staff and parishioners came to the workshop from all over Oregon, including Pendleton, Redmond, Milwaukie and Lake Oswego. Among prison volunteers are a former Salem police officer, the sister of an inmate and a whole crew of Spanish speakers who visit people detained for immigration violations. Many already minister in jails and prisons and want to solidify their ministry, learn from others and pick up resources like faith study guides.
“You have been doing work in the trenches without a lot of support from the pastoral center. We want to change that,” said Todd Cooper, special assistant to Portland Archbishop Alexander Sample.
Archbishop Sample is a prison ministry enthusiast. He visits regularly, despite a packed schedule, and has done so since he was a young priest in Michigan.
Auxiliary Bishop Ken Steiner speaks often with inmates via phone video.
“Death row is a powerhouse of prayer,” said Bishop Steiner, holding up a welcome mat an inmate had made for him. Two men slated for execution — Jeff Tiner and Conan Hale — create art to help fund Catholic causes, including schools.
The workshop was meant to create a network of Catholic prison volunteers, bind them with prayer and offer information plus resources like classes that can be led behind bars.
Ron Zeilinger, founder of Dismas Ministry, paid his own way from Wisconsin to Oregon to serve as keynote speaker. He offered free Bible studies and faith courses volunteers could take to lock-ups. Zeilinger says he hears from inmates nationwide that they want Catholic Bibles and catechetical material. Topics include prayer in the Old Testament, prayer in the New Testament and Catholic spiritual traditions.
“Some inmates see the value of thinking they are like monks — living in a cell and dividing the day into prayer,” Zeilinger explained. His organization is named after the good thief, crucified next to Jesus.
The pastoral center also has Bibles and prayer books that can be used in for jail work.
Laura Kazlas has been a driving force in local prison ministry. She organized the workshop.
Oregon prison ministry sometimes yields remarkable results. In the 1960s, Benedictine Father Cosmas White reached out to a young man in Tillamook County Jail. The lad, Jim Seymour, converted and now is executive director of Catholic Community Services of the Mid-Willamette Valley.