Answering the Call: “I was imprisoned, and you visited me.”

Before my time there, I held the very common belief that all criminals were bad and deserved to be imprisoned. They deserved to be punished. How wrong I was in not seeing their humanity.
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I was first called to do this by a good friend of mine and fellow volunteer, Alecx, when they told me they were a Dominican Volunteer and said I should apply too. After a week of consideration, I finally applied, and was accepted not too long after.

There were only two sites open in Chicago, and neither one really stood out to me. So, DVUSA continued the search and came across Kolbe House Jail Ministry. I’d never heard of it before. The interview went very well, and I was scheduled to begin in August.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Kolbe House Jail Ministry is an organization within the Archdiocese of Chicago that ministers to those affected by incarceration, whether they were behind bars themselves, or someone they knew was incarcerated. 

“No one is the sum of the worst thing they have done.” That quote (whose origin eludes me) is prevalent everywhere throughout Kolbe House Jail Ministry. Before my time there, I held the very common belief that all criminals were bad and deserved to be imprisoned. They deserved to be punished. How wrong I was in not seeing their humanity. The people we (Kolbe House) minister to are not evil, but broken. Far too many come from environments where crime was their only option to keep themselves and their loved ones safe. I heard the heartbreaking personal stories of struggle from so many different people. And the terrible conditions of jails and prisons does nothing to alleviate any past trauma. While there are individuals and organizations that go to the prisons to minister, as well as different programs offered by the prison staff, the detainees are still left in the same conditions as they were before the ministers arrived. They still have to go back to their tiny cells with iron bars and cold stone walls.

When a person is released, they are given nothing except the clothes on their backs, $10, and a bus pass to get them to their parole site (not even a winter coat or warm clothing in the colder months). Some are able to live with family or friends. But many are sent to crowded halfway houses across Chicago. They may have been given a place or two to call for assistance, but they’re on their own once they step through the iron gate. That is where Kolbe House steps in. Located just a few blocks away from Cook County Jail, people would walk from there to the door of Kolbe House and know that they can receive assistance, whether it be essentials like food, clothing, toiletries, bus passes, or referrals to other organizations for additional support, and even accompaniment. This is where the gospel comes in. KH ministers will sit with clients and listen to their stories, offering any advice,support, words of encouragement and even prayer to help them know that they are not alone in the arduous process of re-entering the community.

Due to the pandemic, KH transitioned to providing support over the phone. And volunteers were not allowed to go into the jail for ministry. I will never forget one of my coworkers recounting how he saw in one of the Cook County Jail windows a large banner that said “Don’t forget about us!” It broke my heart to hear. Needless to say, we stepped up and did as best we could to minister as well as we did before COVID. I was able to play a role in this by not only providing direct client support, but also working with the in-jail volunteers in creating and distributing videos on various topics such as domestic violence, mental health, addiction and recovery, etc. 

I remember one client I assisted in particular. Very honest and open, and most certainly dedicated to getting his life and freedom back. All he asked for was some food, a bus pass, and a couple referrals to other organizations for additional help. And he thrived. He now has a good job and stable housing.

There were many ups and downs, joys and sorrows, but all in all, I have no regrets about this year. I am abundantly thankful to God for calling me to this ministry.