Mike Holland walked into a prison classroom, not knowing what to expect.
Eight inmates were in the room. When they saw Holland enter, one of them stood up and told him, “We prayed that you would come.”
“I was like, ‘What? Holy smokes. OBviously, God must want me to come here,’” said Holland, 75, a memBer of Legatus’ New Orleans Northshore Chapter.
More than 14 years since that January 2005 initial encounter with prison ministry, Holland, a retired Businessman, continues to visit the RayBurn Correctional Facility, a medium-security state prison in Angie, Louisiana, every other Wednesday.
“Something God wanted me to do”
“I just really feel this is something God wanted me to do, and he used a Protestant man who knew me to bring me into this role,” Holland said.
Holland and about four other parishioners from Mary Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mandeville drive 50 miles every other week to the prison, which houses 1,200 felons serving sentences ranging from five to 30 years.
Holland and his fellow parishioners bring around 60 consecrated hosts, and lead a communion service. Holland delivers a reflection and distributes the Eucharist with the other volunteers. A six-piece band leads about 110 inmates in worship.
“It’s a full-blown service,” Holland said.
Visiting the imprisoned is one of several corporal works of mercy. Jesus — who Himself spent a harrowing night imprisoned after his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane — had enlightened his disciples on the works of mercy, and said they who visit the imprisoned visit Him (Matthew 25:36).
Every week across the United States, hundreds of Catholic prison ministry staff and volunteers visit the more than 2 million people who are incarcerated in the federal and state prisons, and county jails.
Drawing convicts to Christ
Prison ministry can be tough work, for which it is often difficult to recruit people, faithful Catholics included, willing to go behind prison walls and interact with pretrial detainees and inmates, some of whom have committed violent crimes and are serving life sentences.
“These are not school boys who were picked up by the truant officer. They are convicted felons, but these are guys who are truly sorry for what they did and are seeking redemption,” Holland said.
Over the years, Holland’s prison ministry has helped bring many convicted felons to give their lives to Christ. Some have even entered the Catholic Church, receiving Baptism, Confirmation and their first Communion.
“It’s just been a very successful situation,” Holland said.
But before January 2005, Holland had never envisioned himself in prison ministry. A friend, a Protestant who was involved in prison ministry at the Rayburn Correctional Facility, had told Holland that the inmates there needed a Catholic presence.
“I was just incredulous,” Holland said. “No member of my family had ever been arrested that I was aware of. I never envisioned any of this.”
After thinking it over, Holland said he agreed to accompany his friend to the prison a couple of weeks later. After meeting the initial group of inmates and being told he was the answer to their prayers, Holland started making the drive to Angie every other week. He has not stopped since.
“This has been the most wonderful thing that could have happened to me,” he said.
Necessary trust factor
But trust had to be built.
Trust is a critical factor for a successful prison ministry. Many inmates who are serving prison sentences come from disadvantaged backgrounds and had a tough time growing up. Even if they yearn for God’s presence and His love, they still erect defense mechanisms that prison ministers have to penetrate.
“Most of these men have never had any men in their lives who ever showed them respect and love,” Holland said.
Early on in his ministry, an inmate told Holland, “Mr. Mike, I don’t give you more than a couple of months.”
When Holland continued going to the prison for six months, the inmate told him he was starting to earn his confidence. After a full year, the inmate said, “You know, Mr. Mike, you’re okay. I think you’re gonna last here.”
“I said, ‘Well, I think I will, too,’” Holland said.
Authentic love and respect
Showing authentic love and respect to people, even convicted felons, over time goes a long way. Even a simple gesture like greeting a classroom of inmates as “gentlemen” can carve enough space for grace to enter.
“I walked into the classroom a couple of months after I started, and this one guy said, ‘Nobody has ever called me a gentleman before,’” Holland said.
“I said, ‘Well, you’re gonna hear it from me now,’” Holland added. “I told them, ‘I’m here as a help to you, to bring Christ to you, and I told them, ‘I’m going to treat you with respect and I expect you to treat me with respect.’”
Respect has been a two-way street between Holland and the inmates. Last year, Holland was away for a couple of months while recovering from a heart operation. When he returned to the prison and entered the chapel, the inmates gave him a standing ovation.
“It brought me to tears,” Holland said. “These guys are all God’s children. They just needed someone to show them some caring. I’d say most of these guys, their families have disowned them. They’re outcasts, and they’re seeking someone to show them love and respect.”
Meeting Christ where they are
Holland was also involved in a committee that worked for three years to raise more than $550,000 to build a 7,100-squarefoot interfaith chapel on the prison grounds. The chapel opened in 2010, and hosts the Catholic Communion services.
The services include the following: Sunday Mass readings, a homily, the distribution of Communion and music. Most of the inmates who attend are Catholic, though the service also attracts Protestants and non-Christians.
After the service, the inmates may gather for a Bible study, to watch a religious film and socialize. The inmates recently were watching a film about St. Peter.
While the prison ministry is carried out by Mary Queen of Peace Church, the inmates decided to name their congregation after St. Peter. In the last year, three men entered the Catholic Church through the St. Peter Catholic Community at Rayburn Correctional Facility.
“We’re very proud of that,” Holland said.
Rapid growth – like Peter and early Church
On weeks that Holland and his team do not visit, a local deacon and priest visit the facility to celebrate Mass and distribute the Eucharist. Three archbishops from New Orleans have also visited the prison over the years to celebrate Mass for the inmates.
With plenty of free time on their hands, the inmate members of St. Peter Catholic Community pray for each other, their chaplains, and the ministry volunteers. Through praying and worshiping together, and showing each other mutual respect, the St. Peter Catholic Community has grown from eight men in a classroom to 110 inmates in a chapel. The congregation seems poised to continue to grow.
“They just wanted someone to show them love and respect,” Holland said. “When you do that, you get it back a hundredfold.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.