By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published September 2, 2021
ATLANTA—Father Kevin Peek is the new coordinator of Prison and Hospital Ministries for the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
The prison ministry provides support, sharing resources and training opportunities to all those who minister to the incarcerated in prisons and jails in the Atlanta Archdiocese.
Within the archdiocese’s geographical boundaries, there are more than 230 incarceration facilities, with 32 run by the Department of Corrections, two federal and 196 county and city jails.
To increase Catholic presence in prisons and jails and more effectively minister to the incarcerated, Father Peek is asking Catholics within the archdiocese to prayerfully consider joining the ministry.
“Prison ministry involves more than visitation and the giving of the sacraments,” said Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III, in a recent Georgia Bulletin column. “The goal of prison ministry must be directed at inclusivity in parish life rather than thinking of them as exclusive from it and relegated to the responsibility of some department within the church. We cannot allow someone who is ‘out of sight’ to be ‘out of our hearts.’”
The Georgia Bulletin asked Father Peek to share future plans for the ministry. The email exchange has been edited for length.
How long have you been involved in prison ministry outside of this new role?
I actually got started in prison ministry through the Legion of Mary while in college. The Legion of Mary promotes lay people to take on active roles in the service of Christ in the community, especially to the marginalized. I chose prison ministry because I figured they were the least visited and most in need of connection to the grace and love of Christ and his church.
It was an amazing experience, and one I did not forget as I became a priest. Throughout my priesthood I have been visiting prisons and jails as part of my parish and ministry responsibilities. In 2015, I became a full-time prison minister for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, serving for two and a half years before being activated for military chaplaincy. Now I return as coordinator, with hopes we can increase Catholic presence and support to all of our incarcerated brothers and sisters.
How has being a part of prison ministry impacted your faith?
Being a part of prison ministry has reminded me on a regular basis of those who suffer amongst us. Mission trips are great for forming our youth and inspiring them to care for the suffering of the world. But we have many neglected, forgotten, suffering and in need right here in our own area—especially in our prisons. Christ’s reminder that in serving them we serve him is also very grounding in the reality of faith.
What is a misconception about being involved in prison ministry?
Most people who have never been incarcerated and have never had a friend or family member incarcerated often see prison through the scope of the media or Hollywood. But these are usually sensational and inaccurate portrayals of daily life behind bars.
Prison ministry has several different dimensions, a couple of which do not even necessitate entry into the facility. Additionally, once inside, volunteer ministers are always welcomed by those incarcerated who attend services. You are a break from the monotony and a sign that people still remember and care.
Can you share an experience in prison ministry that had a deep impact on you?
Early in 2015, I met a prisoner in the Georgia Diagnostic facility in Jackson. He asked if I could help him make a vow to God. Understanding that vows to God are serious things, I asked him what type of vow and why. He said that he just entered the prison system and was going to be in the system for quite some time, and wanted to make of his time “inside the walls” a monastic experience—as the prison, with its walls, cells, dining areas, and chapel reminded him of a monastery, and he wanted to live his time there in that way. It was a powerful lesson in re-shaping one’s view of the environment and situation, and a deep understanding of the potential that still existed within him as a child of God.
I have met truly innocent and good people who simply made a mistake under pressure. Also a death row inmate who converted to Catholicism and spent his last years writing encouraging words to foster kids who were enduring similar challenges to those he experienced—trying to keep them from falling into the same trap he did.
Not everyone inside are like these … , but those who are seeking to renew and rebuild their lives and relationships with God and others are usually the ones we end up meeting the most.
What goals do you have for the ministry over the next year?
Over the next year, our goal is to transition prison ministry from being centered on the archdiocesan office to being more a parish and deanery level ministry. We hope to establish a prison ministry team in each parish, with coordinators on the deanery level to help create comprehensive support across the deanery—particularly from parishes with few facilities to parishes with many.
We look to recognize and build upon the great ministries that are already functioning throughout north Georgia and leverage their successes to benefit and inspire newcomers with training and assistance to work through the process of getting access and any challenges.
What would you say to encourage someone to get involved?
Encouraging someone to get involved in prison ministry is really a matter of helping them to hear the call of the Holy Spirit in their heart.
If someone has a sense that God is possibly calling them, get involved and start asking questions. You do not have to be a theologian or a scholar to get involved—many of those incarcerated are there because they lack knowledge of many things, including God.
If you have a love of God and a simple knowledge of the faith, you will be a great asset and catalyst in the lives of those “inside the walls” incarcerated and staff alike.
To get involved with prison ministry, consult with your pastor who will forward your name to Father Peek. Visit the prison ministry online on the Archdiocese of Atlanta website.