Volunteers teach Catholic inmates, others to keep faith

CONWAY — Ronald Miller found faith in a place where people often struggle to keep it: in prison.
Miller, a 44-year-old inmate at J. Reuben Long Detention Center, was baptized in jail after learning about Catholicism through the prison ministry program at St. James Church.
Miller is one of many prisoners across the state whose faith has been sparked or strengthened by similar outreach programs. With an estimated 700 Catholics in state jails and about 35 volunteers in South Carolina, the Diocese of Charleston is trying to connect and breathe new life into these efforts, said Deacon James Hyland, diocesan prison ministry coordinator.
St. James volunteers have been holding Bible studies at the Conway detention center since 1996, but Miller’s was the first baptism the church has done there.
He started by attending  Bible studies, and constantly requested more literature about the faith. Still, the letter he sent the church last year asking to become Catholic was a bit of a surprise, according to Father Frederick LaBrecque, pastor.
“I got a letter from this young man from J. Reuben Long saying could we send him some information about the Catholic Church,” Father LaBrecque said.
“Next thing we knew, we were figuring out how to do an RCIA in there,” he said.
Miller, who has been in jail for more than a year awaiting  trial, said he had long felt called to Catholicism but was not ready to commit until being imprisoned.
“I could see that living the other life I was living, it was no good for me. All I got out of it was a lot of badness and negativity,” Miller said. “I started reading the Bible. The more I read the Bible the more I began to understand clearly. It was like I was having a conversation with God.”
Bernadette McMasters, a pastoral associate at St. James, paired up with Miller to teach him. She visited him weekly for almost a year to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults.
She said she wondered at first if Miller understood the commitment and long hours of studying that would be required. But even through the glass that separated them during her visits, McMasters saw his dedication.
Miller learned and prayed with fervor, she said.
“The way he says the Nicene Creed, he says it with such conviction. He actually prays it. It impressed me that he was really trying,” McMasters said.
At an Easter Mass, surrounded by fellow inmates, Miller was baptized in a basin set up in a unit of the prison that had been under renovation, Father LaBrecque said.
The priest wasn’t quite sure how it would go but said Miller “spontaneously walked up and kneeled down. You could see the enthusiasm and the faith in him as he awaited that moment.”
Miller also received the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation that day.
The church’s prison ministry has three volunteers who work with 45-50 inmates, said Paula Loehr, parish coordinator for the program. She said their goal is to bring Christ’s presence to the jail.
Similar efforts are going on statewide, Deacon Hyland said.
He took on the diocesan prison ministry job a few years ago when Bishop Robert J. Baker, formerly of Charles­ton and now of Birmingham, Ala., started pushing for a renewed interest in the ministry, he said.
Hundreds of state prison inmates are Catholic, and Deacon Hyland said he is tasked with creating a network among parish ministries to help reach those inmates.
His office publishes a newsletter, conducts workshops to train prison ministry volunteers and recently produced a workbook with guidelines for them. Workshops are scheduled for each deanery. The next one is July 18 at St. Michael Church in Garden City.
There are many objectives for prison ministry, but Deacon Hyland said the primary purpose is to be a source of strength for Catholics in jail.
“We’re not in the prisons to try to steal somebody from a different denomination. We’re there primarily to strengthen … the faith of our Catholics that are already there,’’ he said.
Other functions of the outreach include introducing Catholicism to those who express an interest, and developing aftercare, such as mentoring programs, for people who have been released, according to the diocesan prison ministry Web site.
Father LaBrecque said he sees the ministry as a chance to be of service. He goes to the prison when an inmate requests his presence, and said he never feels threatened or unsafe.
Loehr said that some prisoners, including Miller, have embraced Catholicism so much that they evangelize to other inmates. One person, who is serving a life sentence without parole, is now an RCIA teacher, she said.
But that kind of transformation doesn’t happen overnight, said Loehr, whose outreach also includes writing letters and birthday cards to inmates.
“The progress can be slow at times as a ministry,” she said. “We just plant the seeds and let God water them.”
For more information, visit www.supportcatholiccharities.org and click Prison Ministry.