By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 14, 2011
The Prison and Jail Ministry of the Atlanta Archdiocese aims to make stronger links between parishioners and Catholics behind bars.
Inmates should have a sacramental presence in their lives, said Deacon Richard Tolcher, a retired federal chaplain who is now the ministry leader.
Prisoners can at times wait a month between Masses or to participate in Bible study so he would like to train more people to reach out to men and women behind bars.
“My ministry is based on Scripture: Matthew 25,” Deacon Tolcher said. “Very clearly, Jesus says to visit the prisons. It really is a command. He doesn’t suggest. He doesn’t say wait until you retire. He says, do it now.”
The ministry receives $150,000 from the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal to fund the program. The ministry has a staff of three: Deacon Tolcher, whose position is part time, and two full-time priests, Fathers Yuen Caballejo and John Fallon, to visit the nearly two-dozen state and county prison facilities in the archdiocese. The program supports RCIA programs behind bars, along with providing religious literature and catechisms.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama are very supportive of the program, visiting inmates on a regular basis and celebrating Mass.
The Prison and Jail Ministry program works because of the many volunteers who support it, but Deacon Tolcher would like to have more people involved in local and city jails that don’t already have a Catholic presence.
These are small facilities that people may not be aware of, but inside are prisoners waiting to be visited and receive the sacraments, he said.
Deacon Tolcher was ordained a permanent deacon in 1987, and as a paid chaplain in the federal prison system he started a Catholic ministry at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and called it the St. Dismas Chapel for the “good thief” who hung on the cross next to Jesus. After retirement, he applied for the position of prison ministry coordinator of the archdiocese, a part-time post. He said the goal for the Catholic jail ministry is to share the faith with others and follow the Gospel mandate.
However, winning converts is not the purpose of the ministry. Rather, it is to serve the inmates, not to see them as potential recruits to the church, Deacon Tolcher said. The service can be for people who aren’t members of the church and who simply want a direction in life.
Deacon Norm Keller gets that. He can be found nearly weekly in three different prisons.
“I’m not there to proselytize them. I’m there to talk if they want to talk, to answer questions if they have questions. I’m not there to make conversions,” said Deacon Keller, who is a member of St. Joseph Church, Marietta.
Wednesdays, starting at 10 a.m., is Catholic hour at the Cobb County Jail. Deacon Keller will be there, either leading a Communion service or a Liturgy of the Word or assisting at Mass for the dozen or so men who attend.
Deacon Keller, a retired engineer, has worked in prison ministry as a member of the clergy since February, but he volunteered for more than four years before his February ordination.
People often ask what prisoners are like and he tells them, “They are like you and I. They’ve done a stupid thing that put them in there. God forgives stupidity.”
Deacon Tolcher said he is meeting with priests and deacons around the archdiocese to promote links between parishes and the jails in their backyards.
He’d like inmates, especially those locked up in small municipal jails, to be served by local volunteers. Deacon Tolcher is putting together materials to train people as they embark on this service. And the first thing they should do is pray, he said. It is vital that people realize what motivates them to this service and also to be sure a person can fulfill the commitment to be a part of the ministry, Deacon Tolcher said.
“We all get a lot out of this, but more focus should be on the inmates,” he said.
Two parishes with strong prison ministry programs are St. Pius X Church, in Conyers, and St. Michael Church, in Gainesville.
Deacon Michael Kennedy, who is assigned to the Gainesville church, said there are three different facilities in the community to serve. An effort to recruit people is underway, but especially there is a need for women to visit female prisoners.
People are needed to lead Bible study at local jails, since other facilities can require background checks or have other hurdles, he said.
For more information about the archdiocesan Prison and Jail Ministry, contact Deacon Richard P. Tolcher at email@example.com or call (404) 920-7357.