Ham Lake parish’s prison ministry aims to help offenders know their dignity

| June 22, 2016 | 0 Comments
Tyrece Matthews, left, stands with Deacon Timothy Zinda, coordinator of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, an outreach supported by the Catholic Services Appeal. Deacon Zinda’s parish, St. Paul in Ham Lake, is launching EMBRACE, a program designed to help former offenders transition to life after prison. The parish plans to help Matthews after he is released from prison in March. Courtesy Deacon Zinda

Tyrece Matthews, left, stands with Deacon Timothy Zinda, coordinator of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, an outreach supported by the Catholic Services Appeal. Deacon Zinda’s parish, St. Paul in Ham Lake, is launching EMBRACE, a program designed to help former offenders transition to life after prison. The parish plans to help Matthews after he is released from prison in March. Courtesy Deacon Zinda

Wound healers

Part seven in a 14-part Year of Mercy series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.

Tyrece Matthews received about 100 Christmas cards last December.

His fellow inmates were understandably jealous.

Convicted three years ago of assaulting his girlfriend, Matthews is scheduled to be released next March from the Minnesota corrections system. That’s when Catholics involved in EMBRACE, a new ministry that attests to the corporal work of mercy of visiting the imprisoned, anticipate doing more to help him return to society than merely sending greeting cards.

The Christmas cards — and Easter cards this spring  — came from parishioners at St. Paul in Ham Lake, where EMBRACE is gaining momentum.

The acronym EMBRACE, Deacon Timothy Zinda explained, stands for Eucharist, mercy, brotherhood, restoration, action, compassion and encouragement. The initiative was his idea. Along with his diaconate assignment at St. Paul, Deacon Zinda does prison ministry and is coordinator of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

He said the concept for a ministry to support an offender and help him or her to transition back to community life developed after he got to know Matthews through his regular prison ministry visits.

“I felt bad for him,” Deacon Zinda said. “He has no family. He has nobody to turn to. His life was terrible.”

Matthews, 34, grew up in Chicago, never knew his father, and his drug-addict mother tried to kill her son twice during drug deals.

As a teenager he was stabbed and robbed, was sexually abused by an uncle, and later suffered a nervous breakdown.

He and his girlfriend were always fighting, Matthews told Deacon Zinda, which led to a conviction for assault.

Since winding up in the Minnesota corrections system, Matthews has taken an anger management course and been a model inmate, which allows him to be in a minimum-security facility.

“Tyrece has always been such a good prisoner,” Deacon Zinda said, which is why he is working to have Matthews be the first person to be not adopted, but embraced, by the new ministry.

Looking past the crimes

After studying the Catechism of the Catholic Church with Deacon Zinda, Matthews joined the Church at Easter in 2015.

Along with the greeting cards, parishioners at St. Paul have been writing to Matthews, and a small committee has divided up the work in specific areas of need to support him.

That doesn’t mean they don’t see his prison sentence as a means of justice.

“I tell people who are in prison, ‘There’s a reason why you did what you did, but it’s not an excuse,’” Deacon Zinda said.

“You have to look past the crime they did,” he added. “People get themselves in a lot of problems. They have a wound somewhere, and they put a Band-Aid on it with drugs and alcohol.”

With Matthews, however, Deacon Zinda said, “I didn’t look at him as a criminal.”

Deacon Zinda sees EMBRACE as one way to address recidivism, the return to prison by repeat offenders. A criminal record comes up on a background check when a former inmate applies for a job, for example. “When you get out of prison, it’s like being punished twice,” he said.

Upon release ex-offenders need a place to live, a job, transportation, plus clothes and household items, potential medical and dental treatment, legal help and continuing education.

Deacon Zinda hopes the parish’s 1,200 households can meet Matthews’ needs.

“I thought, ‘We’re a big community, why can’t we draw from that pool of people?’” he said.

Perhaps someone owns an apartment complex who could donate housing for a time, he said. Maybe someone with a small business could offer a job, and a doctor and a lawyer could offer their services.

“Everybody knows somebody who might help,” he said.

Sharing Jesus

Barb Skillings is confident that people will step up to make EMBRACE work.

She’s seen the enthusiasm from those with whom she has worked in the Residents Encounter Christ program for the past 23 years, and she knows why people volunteer for the weekend retreats at prisons: “To be a part of God’s mercy and to help these men come to know his love in them,” she said, “to watch the change in them when they begin to feel like a human being again.”

A derivative of the popular Teens Encounter Christ program, the Residents Encounter Christ retreat is based on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Offenders experience the message of Christ through participation in music, small group discussions led by volunteers, talks, prayer, Scripture, an opportunity to confess their sins, plus Mass and a meal with testimonies by people who share their personal encounter with Christ.

Church of St. Paul parishioners make up the core of more than 160 people who have helped to make REC weekends at the Lino Lakes Correctional Facility. Prison officials acknowledge that the retreat weekends “help keep peace around the place,” Deacon Zinda said — so much so that in 2015, a Minnesota Department of Corrections official requested that REC be expanded to correctional facilities at Stillwater and Rush City.

REC No. 1 in Stillwater was held in December 2015, and REC No. 1 in Rush City is planned for August.

Changing hearts

Skillings admitted she was nervous when she went through REC training at a maximum security prison in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, REC’s birthplace.

“I remember one of the men came and sat down by me and asked me how it felt to be sitting next to a murderer,” she said.

Her heart started to beat fast, but, after a while, she said, “I felt my heart change, and I saw many changes in the hearts of the residents. By the third day, I knew I would never be the same. I felt and saw how the love, mercy and grace of Jesus Christ had changed hearts of men whose hearts had been hardened by life. I had never felt so much love and forgiveness in one place before.”

Barb’s husband, Tim, said he saw the need for prison ministry when he took part in his first REC weekend. Minnesota Department of Corrections officials pointed the group to the juvenile facility in Sauk Centre.

“These young men didn’t have any father figures in their lives,” he recalled, “and so they would just suck us men dry. They just wanted to know what love was.”

Offenders themselves attest to that change of heart in testimonies they wrote after attending the most recent retreat weekend at Lino Lakes.

“The REC program opened my heart to the Spirit of Jesus and saved my life,” said Steve Mehsikomer, responding to a request from The Catholic Spirit.

Another REC participant, Robert Day, wrote: “I had a great weight lifted off of me. All my guilt, shame and sadness were gone. And more importantly, I grew closer to our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Larger than one parish

Inmates who have attended REC retreats in the past volunteer to serve on the “inside team,” joining later weekends to share their thoughts and listen to new attendees.

Rob Maho is a former prisoner who is now part of the REC “outside team,” typically 35 volunteers. While serving a nine-year sentence, he attended the first REC at Lino Lakes in 1992 and stays involved, he said, for a host of reasons.

“The REC ministry is fulfilling the Great Commission [to go and teach all nations and bring them to God],” Maho said. “In addition to rescuing souls, it introduces each man to a personal relationship with their Heavenly Father; it helps contribute to a better society in that former criminals learn to think and act biblically, which makes them better fathers, law-abiding citizens, more productive employees.”

Because he is an ex-offender, Maho said, he can identify with the men.

“I can inject hope into their lives by my experience — both as an inmate and as a Native American . . . as a Christian and as a free person who has been out and stayed out for 18 years now,” he said.

He added: “If the Lord can use my experience to help others, I want to be used for the furthering of his kingdom so that prayerfully there will be more men who make it into eternal life with Christ than there would have been if I did nothing.”

Despite the powerful testimonies, prison ministry isn’t something that typically draws volunteers readily.

When Deacon Zinda offered an information session about EMBRACE, only about 50 people attended.

“Unless you do it [get involved in prison ministry],” he said, “the only connection you have [with someone incarcerated] is from TV or a newspaper mug shot, and everyone in those look like they crawled out from under a rock.”

Which is why the deacon is reaching out to the community beyond Ham Lake and hoping to expand to other parishes.

“We need to open this opportunity to serve to others,” Deacon Zinda said. “Even though it’s a parish thing, it doesn’t need to be. We’re a universal Church.”

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy