Photos and reflection By Rebecca Drake
(Editor’s note: Donations to the Springfield Diocese’s Annual Catholic Appeal help to purchase the Catholic Bibles used in the Residents Encounter Christ programs in Hampden and Berkshire counties.)
The first thing I saw was a little girl playing on the floor, a box of toys beside her. People came from a chilly winter evening into the church basement meeting hall. Many carried plates of desserts, placed on a table where a coffee pot was soon plugged in and perking.
Along with winter coats, hats and gloves, all those who entered wore smiles. Some hugged or shook hands. Greetings were enthusiastically exchanged and everybody looked – well – happy. One young man sat down at a piano and started playing and singing a gospel song.
This was not what I expected when I went with a videographer to Vincent Hall at Trinity United Methodist Church in Springfield for the weekly Thursday night meeting of former jail inmates and volunteers who have participated in the Residents Encounter Christ weekend program conducted by the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office.
Known as REC, the ecumenical program brings together inmates of the Hampden County House of Correction in Ludlow, the female inmates at the Chicopee jail and residents of the alcohol rehabilitation facility on Howard Street in Springfield with volunteers willing to share their faith experiences. Held three times a year at each of the three locations, the program encourages inmates and those struggling with substance addictions to invite Christ to come with them on their journeys as they take responsibility for their actions and work toward repairing and rebuilding their lives.
After completing the weekend program, inmates and volunteers often maintain contact with each other, praying and reading the Bible together. After they have been released, many former inmates attend the Thursday night gatherings at the Springfield church for continuing support and sharing as, in the words of one of them, they “become free on the outside, after becoming free on the inside.”
My visit to the Thursday night gathering at Trinity was part of a television story I am working on for our weekly newsmagazine program, “Real to Reel.” I had already been to the Ludlow jail facility where I interviewed an inmate who had recently participated in the REC program, along with Deacon Bill Toller, a longtime supervisor in the correctional facility’s education department. I had already seen, through the testimony of those two men, the powerful effects of God’s mercy on both inmates and volunteers in the REC program.
Last Thursday night, I saw the ongoing personal and spiritual bonds created at REC weekends that can become a lifeline as former inmates, and those battling addiction issues, face both ordinary and extraordinary challenges of daily life. And while my preconceived notion of these meetings was of a somber scene and quiet conversation, what I discovered was a joyous celebration of camaraderie, caring, acceptance and hope.
There was a Bible reading, a group prayer, a spirited, hand-clapping rendition of “When the Saints Come Marching In” and a sharing of personal testimonies. And as I listened, another surprise: I really couldn’t tell which speakers were volunteers and which were former inmates. All spoke of struggles and simple joys they had experienced during their week apart: time with family members, moments of feeling hopeless, feeling in control, out of control, doubting God, trusting God, gaining ground, falling back, changing course – and looking forward to Thursday night.
Here are anonymous excerpts from some of those testimonies:
“This program saved my life.”
“I am so happy to be here… I am always so happy to be here.”
“This group is like the wheels on a railroad train: The grooves on the wheels keep it centered… I get recharged every Thursday night.”
“I am getting ready for the next REC weekend… God has a plan for some other men and women…”
“I thank God for all he’s done in my life… I thank him for people and places and things… And I thank you for being here tonight.”
“I’m excited… this is somewhere that I can fit in. I fit in here. It’s the perfect place to be. We grow and help each other, love each other… Most of all, I want to give thanks to Jesus, he’s always there, he never forsakes you.”
“I am grateful to be here… a few days ago I was out in the desert, ready to die… I felt I had nothing to give and God said, ‘I do the giving.’”
From these testimonies, from the desire to change, from the belief that, in our weakest moments, we are still children of a loving God, I have taken away some questions to ponder during the season of Lent: What is God trying to give to me? Am I truly open and ready to receive those gifts in my life? And, with the help of Jesus, am I willing to share these gifts with others?
For, as St. Francis reminds us in his prayer of peace, it is in giving that we receive, and in dying to self, that we will live eternally in God.