By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published October 18, 2007
Dismas Ministry, a national Catholic prison outreach named after the repentant criminal crucified with Jesus, is working with prison ministries here to get Catholic religious books to inmates.
Some 20 state prisons in Georgia receive the ministry’s free Bibles, a Catholic inmate Bible correspondence course, a Catholic inmate faith correspondence course and a unique book of Catholic prayers for inmates called “Pray in the Spirit.”
“As our U.S. prison population reaches an all time high, the words of Jesus in Matthew 25:36 are more challenging than ever: ‘I was in prison and you visited me.’ Our ministry believes that Jesus is present among those behind bars, even though they are often forgotten and regarded by society as outcasts,” said Ron Zeilinger, outreach director. “This is our response to the plea of Dismas: ‘Jesus, remember me’ (Lk 23:42). We take this prayer to heart,” he said.
Some 5 percent of the Georgia prison population identified themselves as Catholics, according to the most recent figures from the Georgia Department of Corrections. Just in 2007, 803 men and 98 women identified themselves as Catholic when they were newly incarcerated. The total number of state prisoners is over 47,000.
Don Gale, of Transfiguration Church, Marietta, visits the Cobb County jail weekly. He relies on the resources of the Dismas ministry to reach inmates.
“I buy my Bibles from them. I can’t get a better price,” he said.
If the ministry was not available, he would not be able to serve as many people, he said.
Gale said Zeilinger is very understanding that money can be tight at times and does not let that be a barrier. “He says, what do you need,” said Gale, the activities director at the parish.
The Wisconsin-based ministry has distributed 2,530 Catholic Bibles in English and Spanish versions, along with 1,781 Catholic prayer books.
Dismas Ministry surveyed prison chaplains and found they needed Bibles and faith enrichment materials. The ministries were at a disadvantage compared to the resources other denominations provided, according to the survey. This survey spurred the start of the Dismas Ministry in 2000.
Zeilinger said his group is also building bridges across denominational lines. Many of the chaplains who are not Catholic still respond to the needs of Catholic prisoners, he said.
If Catholics are not able to follow Jesus’ mandate to visit, assisting the ministry with spiritual and financial support is a way to help the imprisoned, Zeilinger said. It helps with the prisoner’s spiritual life and the ministry also helps prepare inmates for life after prison to reduce repeat offenders, he said.
The pocket-sized prayer book includes common Catholic prayers as well as prayers and art contributed by inmates.
Dismas Ministry is endorsed as a Catholic ministry. Bishop Richard J. Sklba, the auxiliary bishop of Milwaukee, is its board president. It is financially independent and raises the funds it needs to carry out its work.
Further information is available at www.dismasministry.org or by writing to Dismas Ministry, P.O. Box 070363, Milwaukee, WI 53207.