Taking ministry behind bars

| July 17, 2012 | 0 Comments

New corrections coordinator offers hope to inmates

Deacon Tim Zinda does hands-on ministry at the Ramsey County Jail (shown) and also serves as the new coordinator of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

Deacon Tim Zinda recalls one of the first inmates he met at the Ramsey County Jail, where he has served as a correctional minister for the last four years.

“He was in there for murder,” Deacon Zinda, 64, said. “His first question to me was: Does God forgive me?’”

Deacon Zinda knew the answer, which lies at the core of Catholic teaching — God will forgive anyone, no matter the sin.

But how do you get a murder suspect who’s not Catholic to believe you?

That’s the challenge. And, it’s what keeps Deacon Zinda coming to the jail every week. He meets with inmates in a small, highly secure room furnished only with a table and chairs.

He has to overcome both his claustrophobia and fear caused by hearing the heavy door slam shut after entering the pods where inmates reside. Then, he has to deal with the chill of being left alone with guys like this one, who are accused of taking someone else’s life.

“It’s hard to explain [correctional ministry] to people because most people, when you tell them you’re a [correctional minister] at Ramsey County Jail, they say, ‘How can you do that? These people should be locked away,’” he said. “But, they don’t understand. You have to bring more light into it.”

Deacon Zinda plans to continue bringing that light into the 32 correctional facilities in the seven-county metro area by serving as the new coordinator of correctional ministry in the archdiocese.

Already, he is assembling an army of volunteers, including some of his fellow deacons, to make contact with the men and women behind bars. Visiting the imprisoned is one of the corporal works of mercy.

Thus far, he has taken Bishop Lee Piché to the jail and hopes to recruit priests to celebrate Masses and confer sacraments at correctional facilities in the archdiocese (Mass is not allowed at Ramsey County Jail, but Deacon Zinda is able to schedule occasional visits by priests to administer the sacraments of baptism, Communion, confirmation and reconciliation).

Masses have happened off and on over the years in the other correctional facilities, and he would like to make it a regular occurrence. Several priests have expressed interest, and he thinks retired priests are an excellent choice for this ministry.

Works of mercy


To feed the hungry;
To give drink to the thirsty;
To clothe the naked;
To shelter the homeless;
To visit the sick;
To visit the imprisoned;
To bury the dead.


To instruct the ignorant;
To counsel the doubtful;
To admonish sinners;
To bear wrongs patiently;
To forgive offenses willingly;
To comfort the afflicted;
To pray for the living and dead.

Delicate work

So, how did Deacon Zinda respond to the murder suspect’s question about God’s forgiveness?

He began by doing one of the tough — but crucial — tasks of correctional ministry. He listened, taking the time to find out more about the man sitting across from him.

“This guy was strung out on drugs and committed a violent crime,” Deacon Zinda said. “He didn’t tell me the whole story, he just said he committed murder. Well, he committed three murders is what he did.

“So, I tried to answer his question of whether God forgives him. I said, ‘Do you seek forgiveness from God?’ I said, ‘If you can honestly, earnestly say that, I’m sure God forgives you. God is all merciful.’”

With the man on the doorstep of conversion, Deacon Zinda zoomed in to seal the deal. He had high hopes of saving a soul. But, things took a turn.

“He visited with me for a few weeks,” the deacon said. “We prayed, and then he started turning me down. I thought we were making some progress. Everything is kind of tight-lipped, but I did find out from one of the guards that he tried to kill himself. So, he went to the hospital.

“It’s hard to give people hope in his case. Here’s a guy who’s 30-some years old, committed a triple murder while on drugs, he’s just shot his whole physical life to hell and he ended up getting like 76 years [in prison] with no parole.”

Therein lies the challenge. Veterans in the corrections system have told Deacon Zinda that inmates are quick to turn to Jesus when they’re arrested and sent to jail, but often are just as quick to reject him when they either are handed prison sentences or released.

That’s what makes Deacon Zinda’s work both delicate and volatile. He sees them during the transition period, when they are awaiting trial or sentencing. Sometimes, they’re there for a few days. Other times, they are there for several months or even up to a year.

But no matter the circumstances or length of stay, there is one common denominator that guides Deacon Zinda in every encounter with an inmate — they are human beings.

“I try to teach each person and give them the dignity that they deserve,” he said. “A lot of times, they’ll ask, ‘Do you get paid big bucks for this?’ I said, ‘I get paid nothing, and I drive 30-some miles to get here. And, I do it because I care.’”

Using magic and humor

Deacon Zinda already is at work using that passion to recruit other ministers. He has gotten several on board for the Ramsey County Jail, including someone from the parish where he is assigned, St. Paul in Ham Lake.

Though the ministry could be considered a tough sell, Deacon Zinda has one qualification that might make him the perfect man for the job — he’s a magician.

“My mother-in-law gave me a magic trick [in the 1970s] and I kind of liked it,” he said. “I got more and more involved and bought more equipment and I started doing shows publicly.

“The most amazing trick I can do – I don’t know if I can do it anymore – is my escape trunk, where I’m handcuffed inside a canvas bag, locked and chained in a trunk, and I have to escape.”

While inside the bag, his assistant jumps up on the trunk and holds up a curtain. Then she raises it until she is no longer in view, and drops it down quickly. To the audience’s amazement, Deacon Zinda is standing in her place, while she is inside wearing the cuffs and chains.

No doubt, a few inmates would like to learn such a trick, and Deacon Zinda will make jokes about that with them once in a while. In fact, humor is one of his best tools. It works on the inmates, and he must remember to lighten his own mood, too. After all, many of the inmates he visits end up serving lengthy prison sentences.

But sometimes, finding out men are going to prison isn’t the worst thing. It’s hearing stories about some of their tragic upbringings.

Like the inmate who revealed that he was horribly mistreated by his mother and stepfather. She gave birth to him while single, then later got married and had several children with her husband. Because the boy was viewed as illegitimate, he was treated differently than the other children.

“On the holidays, they would lock him in a closet,” Deacon Zinda said. “The others enjoyed the holiday, and he couldn’t. This is so sad because, when he told me this story, he bawled the whole time. My heart just bled for him. And then, his uncle abused him in the closet, sexually.”

In the end, the boy became an adult and was incarcerated for a sexual crime. As Deacon Zinda sadly notes, this is a familiar pattern in the criminal justice system.

And, it’s one he hopes to help inmates break. Yet, the sad truth is, he rarely will know whether anything he said or did helped an inmate. Once they leave the jail, he has little or no contact with them anymore.

For him, that doesn’t matter. What does matter is who they are and what God calls us to do for them.

“These people are human beings, they have a life and, someday, most of them will be released,” he said. “They’re all God’s children. . . . They’ve  made wrong decisions in their lives. People are bound to. We’re human. We make mistakes, some bigger mistakes than other people. And, God loves everybody.”

Want to help?

For more information or to get involved in correctional ministry, contact Deacon Tim Zinda, coordinator of correctional ministries for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, at (763) 757-6175 or by email at zindammp@

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