God’s mercy behind bars

How Gospel living inspires a group of inmates in a pretrial detention facility

Photo by Alswart | stock.adobe.com

9 min read

It came as a surprise. All of a sudden, Robert found himself behind bars, doors closed, no way out.

“You are being detained…”

Just hours earlier, Robert prayed to Mary—since it was a day devoted to her—to deliver him from his life that had spun out of control.

What he heard were the sharp words of an officer. “You are under arrest.”

Yet Robert didn’t doubt that God was still there. “The officer’s night was ending, but strangely, for me, an opportunity to pursue a new beginning was presented.”

He realized that he had not lived his life well always and, over time, had risked the relationship with his wife, his children, with himself.

“I had previously been an active and loving father, but I became a bad example. I had been a leader in my career, but disappointments caused my confidence to wane, and I went off the right path,” he shares. “I was unrecognizable, no longer the person I intended to be.”

Everything in his life was turned upside down: he lost houses, cars, his job, his family.

“After the obligatory notice to my family and coworkers, I did not keep in contact with anyone from the outside world other than my children,” he says.

He saw himself in the man found half dead, who had fallen among the thieves on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, only to be helped by the Good Samaritan (see Lk 10:30). Yet he noted, “instead of becoming despondent, the calling was just the opposite.”

Robert felt he had to turn his life around.

A friend steps in to help

He had met the spirituality of unity of the Focolare Movement 20 years earlier, when David, a friend, began to invite him to meetings to read a Gospel phrase together with an invitation to put it into practice the following weeks. Robert felt good about it, but did not continue for long.

Yet the insight that there was a God who is unconditional love left a mark on him.

Looking for Christian books in the detention facility, he found nothing, and David came to mind. He contacted David, who provided a bible, a catechism, books on the spirituality of unity and the monthly Focolare Word of Life.

Robert didn’t keep this treasure just for himself—he copied the leaflet and shared it with other inmates. With other inmates, he met for bible study on the Focolare Word of Life commentary. The Gospel spread behind bars, and he was amazed. “Sharing just this one Gospel passage with others each month helped me to see God’s activity in my own life.”

Can the Word of God change the rough, desperate environment of a prison? Robert writes: “Exchanges between jailers and inmates improved. We played card games, dominoes, watched programs together… Tensions in the dorm decreased.”

He was sure that “it was a moment of God’s Holy Spirit acting in our individual souls—what else could explain these behavioral changes?”

Some inmates first made fun of it, but later joined a meeting and were deeply touched. They exchanged experiences with both David and his Focolare group in the “outside world” and among the World of Life group behind bars.

Robert was not afraid to take a stand. One time, he wanted to watch a Catholic Mass on TV, which led to many protests before, during and after the program. A man later told him that they were not against religion, but had no clue what was going on.

At the next opportunity, Robert took time to explain the liturgy, provided the Gospel readings, and answered questions, which sparked interest in many lapsed Catholics to reconnect with the Church.

Indeed, it was more than 20 years since a Catholic priest had visited the detention center, according to “Chops,” one of the first inmates who joined Robert. After reconnecting to his faith through the books, he was able to see a priest.

“This place can be very hostile to religion; it’s not easy to follow the words of Jesus here.”

The enchantment ends

However, this was no a fairy tale. Over the months, the inmates realized that conversion is never done once and for all. Some participants preferred to sleep instead of discussing the bible, two even fought each other. “The Enemy was waiting,” said Robert.

The next Gospel phrase that was featured on the leaflet helped them to stay the course. “Lord, how many times must I forgive?” (Mt 18:21). Forgive those who left the group. Forgive those who got into a fistfight. Forgive himself, for doubting, for showing less enthusiasm.

The effects of the living Word continued to show themselves. A man went to get water from the hot water dispenser, just to find out that someone had used the last drop without refilling it—which could cause the dispenser to burn, which had happened before.

It could have been a moment to get angry and yell… yet the man stayed calm and refilled the container “for Jesus in the other persons.” The next day, the long-promised replacement for the ruined dispenser was brought into their unit!

While reading together a book on Blessed Chiara Luce Badano, a young woman from Italy who died of bone cancer at the age of 19, some men made jokes and inappropriate comments about her wish to be buried in a white wedding dress, as a bride of Jesus.

Robert was taken aback, because for him it was a solemn moment, reading the quotes of a young woman facing the last days of her earthly life. “Am I throwing pearls before swine?” he asked himself (Mt 7:6).

Then he had a single thought: “Forgive.” The next day, he received an additional bible and a catechism from his friend David. Scanning through it, he realized that one particular phrase was highlighted—Revelation 19:7-10, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready…”

He gave the bible and the catechism to the man who had made the worst jokes. The man accepted the gift, and later kept the book on Chiara Luce Badano with her picture on the cover propped up by his bed. “I felt that Blessed Chiara Luce had the last laugh,” Robert shared.

The effects of the Word

Robert has already spent three years in the detention center waiting for his trial. He is not alone. “Acts of love allow Jesus to be present in any situation,” he says simply.

Yet it can be tough. Like many, he doesn’t claim to be innocent, but he would like to get a chance to present facts, to get a fair trial, face the consequences and know what the future could look like.

“Worries resurface about my children, being relevant to my family, having loving relationships.  Questions begin to haunt me about how I will begin a new career, get a car or a home,” he writes. Yet he continues to do acts of love for Jesus in his neighbors, and returns to the dialogue with him.

“Even after being half-dead, the head and heart can still heal. The spirituality can be lived anywhere; I am loved by God immensely, and that experience of being loved must be shared with the world.”

The effects on his fellow inmates are stunning. One of them shared in a letter how his days in prison awaiting trial were filled with depressing thoughts and restless sleep, but after he learned more about the Gospel and the Church, his life completely changed.

“Never in my life would I have thought that he would reveal himself to me,” Thomas C. writes. “I thank God for putting me in jail so that I could meet my friends and meet him.”

One of his friends had problems with his eyesight, and after being upset and even blaming God for his health problems, he prayed to Blessed Chiara Luce Badano. The next day, the guards took him to a doctor who removed a splinter from his eye, and his problems were gone.

Not a miracle—but a sign of a profound change of attitude.

Another group member, “Frosty,” 28, was searching for meaning for about five years and tried out various religious beliefs. “I have finally found a home [in the spirituality of unity],” he writes.

Quoting the books he read and the saints and other authors who are influential to him, he concludes, “Loving my neighbor and embracing every suffering by loving Jesus Forsaken (see Mt 27:46) is the most important thing for us to do.”

And these are not only words, as he describes how he lives the pain when communicating with his family over the phone: “Just like everyone else, I want to be able to wrap my arms around my loved ones. And sometimes I hear a voice in my head that tells me that nobody loves me, reminding me of all the mistakes that I made in my life…

“But I face these challenges with acts of love, and turn my suffering into blessings. I know that God is with me.”

Facing what lies ahead

Their future holds many more challenges: trials, possible long sentences in a correction facility, the difficulties of rebuilding a life. Living the Gospel doesn’t take away the challenges, but it makes them bearable and gives them meaning.

“This Word of Life also brings to mind what I remember Chiara Lubich saying about how trying to ‘be love’ takes us directly to the mountaintop,” shares Robert. “So, even on the mountaintop there are two views. If I look one way, I see the sun on the horizon. If I turn around and look down, I see where I am blocking the sunlight and casting a shadow, which seems disproportionate to the world around me.

“The ideas from this month’s Word of Life that ‘we should live the beatitude of mercy with ourselves too,’ resonated deeply with me.

“I have been in pretrial detention for almost three years, with no meaningful access to court and no dialogue of legal merit with an attorney. During that time I have had little contact with my children’s mother. I had also failed at motivating the appropriate attention for assistance in preventing further loss of resources.

“I understood that being merciful started with me… Once I had made that commitment, it was like the rest of the world was notified.

“All in the same week, an attorney contacted me with some promising progress: I received news that several considerations were granted by the court, my children’s mother added herself to my contacts and sent pictures of our children, and initial steps were taken to prevent additional property loss, even possibly opening up a positive dialogue with my estranged family members.

“These experiences allowed me to see my personality encompassed by mercy. I can then turn toward the source of light and share in the experience of God’s love with many others.”

This article is the fruit of an ongoing conversation between the staff of Focolare Media and Robert and his group. We continue to accompany all of them with our prayers and reading material!

Join the conversation. Send your thoughts to the editor Jon Sweeney.