Monthly Archives: December 2014

Prison Ministry Mission Story

Written by Catherine Heinhold

Part of my prison ministry work is making phone calls for the inmates to their loved ones. Most prisons in Brazil do not have payphones, and possessing a cell phone can have serious negative consequences. Some inmates write and receive letters, but many don’t have access to pen, paper, envelopes or stamps – or simply are not sufficiently literate to write. At my last visit to the penitentiary at Franco da Rocha, an inmate asked me to call his grandmother and ask her to visit. I assumed this meant that he wasn’t receiving visits at all, and that his mother was not in the picture. (Not receiving visits or packages is a hardship as inmates rely on family members to bring or send clothes, shoes, toiletries, toilet paper, etc. None of these things is normally supplied by the prison).

When I reached his grandmother, she turned out to be a delightful woman who told me that the inmate was her only grandson. “Oh no,” she said, “I will not visit him in prison.” I’m used to this response, and simply replied “Ok, I understand.” She continued, “His mother visits him every week, but I just don’t want to see him in that place, it would be too hard.” We chatted a bit more, and the bond between this woman and her grandson became clear. Just the fact that he was asking her to visit – even though he had other visitors – was unusual. Most of the guys are happy if at least someone (preferably a wife, or a parent if the inmate is single) comes. Finally, she mentioned one more reason not to visit – the security procedures to get inside the prison. To enter, family members must strip naked (one half of the body at a time) and squat several times to prove they have nothing in their body cavities. If the guards are suspicious, visitors may be required to use their hands to spread their intimate parts open for the guards to have a look inside. This happens to men, women, and children, including elderly people. “I’m 74 years old,” the grandmother said, “I am not about to put up with that kind of humiliation.” “I truly do understand,” I said. She sent her grandson hugs and love, and we hung up.

Deus em Todo LugarWhen I first started making these “telefonemas,” I found it really nerve-wracking. First of all I had no idea what kind of reception I’d get (if the person on the other end would be happy to hear from the inmate or not), and my Portuguese was still pretty bad. Looking back, I feel kind of sorry for those family members who had to try and figure out what I was saying!

Now, my Portuguese still isn’t perfect, and my accent is detectable from the first word I say, but the conversations do go a bit more smoothly. The three most popular reasons inmates ask to me to call are: to ask their loved one to visit, to ask for a package (of hygiene, food and clothing items), and to let their family know they’ve been transferred to a new location. I never know what I’ll encounter on the other end of that telephone line. I’ve had people hang up on me, give me specific insults to deliver and I’ve had to deliver several “break-up” messages to inmates. I’ve also delivered news of babies born, deaths and changes in addresses. It’s not unusual for a call to turn to a discussion of family finances since one of the main reasons people don’t visit or send packages is lack of funds. One of my favorite calls was to a woman who asked me to tell her husband that she was expecting another child. Her husband was locked in his cell when I delivered the message, and all of his cellmates gathered around to congratulate him.

Each call is a potential moment of connection with someone who is suffering or someone who is celebrating and wants to share their good news. Sometimes I just chat quickly with the person I’m calling, delivering the message that was sent. Other times, the phone call turns into an opportunity to provide pastoral care for inmates’ loved ones who suffer from the stigma of having a family member in prison – and who worry endlessly about how their son, brother or husband is doing. It’s a privilege for me to enter into these moments with family members, and again when I relay messages to the inmates – even when it’s difficult, or the people involved are frustrated or angry with each other. Family members and inmates are profuse in their thanks, but I don’t think they realize that these interactions are a gift for me too – a moment of solidarity and connection across the telephone line.

Finding God in a Concrete Jungle – Marquette Magazine

Returned Maryknoll Lay Missioners Katie Coldwell, who spent three and one-half years serving in mission in Brazil, shares her experience of accompanying imprisoned women through an urban prison garden ministry, in this beautiful article and video developed by Marquette Magazine. In the profile, Katie describes her efforts working with the women prisoners saying, “We go in as a catalyst for change. That’s what being a missionary is about.” She also notes the impact that serving in mission made on her faith, “In Brazil, I grew with God in ways I never imagined.”

Preventative Health Care in Bolivia

By Lexie Adams

Stress is all around us and in us. That’s what I am noticing here too in Bolivia, it’s all over the world. It manifests itself in many ways, many of which are negative: from violence to depression, from hectically scrambling around to lack of patience, from feeling physically sick to verbally bringing down others. How do we recognize that we are stressed and what can we do about it?

photo 1Generally speaking from my experiences here in Bolivia and in the United States, there are stresses that seem to be common between the two: work stress, economic stress, family stress and stress from loss. The stress that I notice to be a bit different is that stress in the United States is often part of specific expectations while the stress here in Bolivia seems to be more related to uncertainty and to the resignation people express for the current situation, summed up as “eso es la vida.”

Two days a week I help out at a community health center where I mainly focus on preventative health care. One exercise class is focused specifically on releasing tension in the muscles and decreasing stress. It involves deep breathing, gentle music, some imagery and slow movements. Some days I wait alone in the outdoor gazebo reading a book while I wait to see if anyone takes me up on the invitation for free classes. Those days help me with managing my own stress, the stress of disappointment that no one wants to participate and the self-consciousness that arises in me sitting all alone. Other days, many people come, and the whole group seems to enjoy the time learning different techniques, or at least becoming aware that they feel stressed sometimes, and that it feels good to release the tension that is often huddled in a muscle, not wanting to come out. L.AdamsClass_2womenYoung children, adults and elders have all participated and have added to the experience.

One of my favorite classes was a session mainly with children. One eight year old boy was very present during all of the movements. He had his eyes closed and unlike the other kids who were a bit embarrassed or nervous, he slowly went through all the arm circles, breathing techniques and stretches. At one point I even saw that he was more in a meditative stance with his palms faced upwards. After the class he asked me if he could buy a CD of the music used in the class. I said it was 2,50bs, approximately 30 cents. He came back to me with his hand held high with the 2,50bs for his copy of the ocean sounds and instrumental music.

On a different day, there were two women attending the class and while we waited for others to join, they spent the time sharing in their stresses, struggles and sadness while offering tidbits of wisdom here and there. I found that the opportunity to gather also offers a safe space where people could share and listen without any expectation for such. Many people say that they would like to attend the class on a different day.  I think this may be partly cultural because I have found that people often don’t like to say “no.” I also think about it and try to put myself in others shoes. If I were them, I probably wouldn’t come either when health issues didn’t already bring me to the clinic. I recognize that when you feel stressed, one more thing to do can be challenging.photo 2

Normal chores of the day can take a long time. For example, cooking from a gas tank that needs to be refilled, with water that comes from a truck that needs to be boiled thoroughly, and with fresh food that needs to be cleaned properly. Cooking with fresh ingredients is super, but the food can also spoil quickly, so frequent trips to the market is also a necessity. Washing clothes by hand and traveling everywhere by public transport also take time.

One man came to attend the class and he told me he had a lot of pain in the back of his head. I asked if he had fallen and hit his head and he said no, but that he was having pain in this specific place because he and his wife were having problems. He had a harder time being present during the exercises and was a bit more fidgety, but at the end he wanted to know if my husband and I would be there on a different day to talk about our experiences with conflict. He hasn’t visited us yet at the clinic, but I hope the awareness of conflict and stress is helping him to take things one step at a time. In fact, there is a lot of violence between couples here in Cochabamba. In the past year, there have been many homicides against the woman in the relationship. Stress is real and the underlying issues need to be addressed.

While I am not saying that a stress relief exercise class will be the only answer, it is telling that people admit to the stress and come to the clinic with stress related symptoms. These classes are also a window for me to understand more deeply what situations people are in here, and why people react the way they do. While I’m still learning how people here in Bolivia respond, I do know to recommend for myself and others, to put things into a different perspective. Enjoy the moments with the people around us and focus on your response instead of having set expectations. Breathe in, breathe out and don’t forget to smile!

Women Prison Education Ministry

Written by Kathy Bond

I love this image of St. Ann and Mary that powerfully promotes women’s education. I also feel a connection to Saint Ann, as one of the female prisons that I have worked in over the last four years is named after her. In my ministries with women’s health education, I have seen many doors open over the years. At times it was only a nudge like when Neves, a farmer in rural Paraiba, held a pencil for the first time during a women’s group in the late 90s. In the same space, another participant, Sueli, swung a door wide open when she increased her involvement in the community and eventually ran for city council.

IMG_4589Saint Ann and Mary also come to mind in my current ministry with prisoner moms and their newborns. This month, we finished our second group of five weekly workshops that include discussions on breastfeeding, care of newborns and prevention/treatment of postpartum depression, along with baby yoga and Shantala massage.

With the generous donations from donors, I was able to take professionalization course for teachers of Shantala massage and Baby Yoga. These elements were successful parts of the course as the mothers and babies loved the techniques, and were able to practice them in their cells between the group meetings.

Making a book of memories of milestones and letters to the babies and future caretakers was an important moment for the moms as they prepared for the difficult moment of separation when babies reach 6-8 months (due to the prison system policy).

Kathy in front of Capital Dec 2011At the end of each course, we complete an evaluation with all the participants. Karina, who was released with her son a month after the course ended, shared, “I am feeling happy to have my son with me but also sad that he is in a prison. But I hope to leave here with him and put in practice and share with other women everything that I learned in the course especially baby Shantala massage and healthy eating for my son and me. Thank you for coming to visit us in this place.”

View All Upcoming Events >