By Katrina Genereux | Associate Editor of Our Northland Diocese
Every Wednesday at 12:45 p.m. Myron Bowar and Kim Pitcher, both parishioners of St. Joseph in Moorhead, meet outside Clay County Jail at Door 14.
After being buzzed through a series of locked doors, they are let into a conference room where they spend 90 minutes with female inmates who choose to attend the programming.
The jail limits the session to 10 inmates. Some of the women who attend are only in the jail for a few days on minor charges. Others with more serious charges can spend months waiting for court dates, jury trials or a transfer to state prison or an addiction treatment center. On average, Bowar estimates an inmate will attend four to six sessions before leaving the jail.
They begin with introductions and tell the women they are Catholic, but all faiths are welcome to the discussion. During the session, they pray study Bible passages and discuss topics including spiritual warfare, the saints and prayer techniques.
Each inmate may have a copy of The Life Recovery Bible in their cell. Bowar is impressed by the dedication many of the women have to studying Scripture. He said often the Bibles are filled with notes and marked pages.
Pitcher views their mission as bringing hope to the women they meet with:
“I always tell them, ‘just remember, most of the saints were sinners and every sinner can be saved.’
“I judge the success of our time there by how much the girls talk … it’s getting them to talk about their personal experiences with Christ,” Bowar said. “I hope to give them 90 minutes of peace to reflect on God. Hopefully this visit enhances their relationship with our Lord and Savior.”
Pitcher said one prayer technique she shares with the inmates is the “Pirate Prayer”. The acronym A-R-R-R (the sound a pirate makes) stands for acknowledge, relate, receive and respond. Pitcher said it has helped some of the women deal with their anger or negative emotions related to being in jail or to painful events in their lives.
She hopes these resources will continue building their relationship with Jesus even after the women leave the county jail:
“If you fall in love with Jesus, regardless of what is happening in your life, nobody will take the joy from your heart as long as you follow him.”
Pitcher received permission to bring her guitar into the jail. Each meeting ends with about 20 minutes of praise and worship music, something everyone enjoys. She said songs the girls know or request sometimes help her understand where they are coming from, or where they are at in their spiritual journey.
As they say goodbye to the women, Pitcher always reminds them that now it is their turn to be Christ to those they encounter.
Formed for Jail Ministry
Both Bowar and Pitcher were gradually led to involvement with jail ministry.
A 2016 jail ministry article in OND, friendship with Father Duane Pribula and an invitation from Deacon Courtney Abel brought Bowar into jail ministry. He has been part of it for just over a year.
In the fall of 2018, Bowar attended Catholic Extension’s Restorative Justice Ministry Certification program, spending a week at Loyola University in Chicago learning about different facets of ministering to the incarcerated as well as strategies for restoration.
During her career as a nurse, Pitcher was continually filled with deep empathy for people excluded from society. A series of experiences and contacts at the parish drove her interest in jail ministry. Timing she said could only be arranged by God led her to attend the Catholic Extension training this October. She has been visiting the jail since then.
Both were able to attend the program thanks to a grant from Catholic Extension.
Bowar said it was one of the best weeks of his life. They heard from members of law enforcement, formerly incarcerated people, crime victims, jail ministry leaders, community organizations that support people when they are released and organization that try to bring healing to communities impacted by crime.
“The presenters were phenomenal in giving us their stories. I am more understanding of the imprisoned and incarcerated,” Bowar said.
“Not a single person who is in jail chose this for a career. They just made a lot of mistakes throughout their lives to put them in this situation.”
Pitcher said the training focused on the role of forgiveness in healing for everyone impacted by crime – perpetrators, victims and communities. She said it is important to hold people accountable, but without caring for all, anger, fear and brokenness prevail.
“We have to have Jesus in jail and the only way he is going to get in there is if we go there as volunteers and let him work through us,” Pitcher said. “You are a vessel for God to get in to tell these people, ‘God loves you. He’s looking you right in the face right now and he loves you.’”
Both Bowar and Pitcher hope that the jail ministry will grow.
“Right now, we are just meeting with the women which is all we can handle with just the two of us. If more people get involved and go through clearance, we can meet with the men,” Bowar said. A minimum of two volunteers need to be present for each session.
Clearance to volunteer at Clay County Jail requires filling out a two-page application and passing a background check.
“If they see you are sincere, you truly care and you are willing to meet them where they are at … it’s the most beautiful ministry,” Pitcher said.
Bowar said something everyone can do is pray for the incarcerated and their families and friends. He said it is also important to pray for the jail staff and everyone involved in the criminal justice system including judges and lawmakers.
At the request of the jail, Bowar helped organize a coat drive so people who don’t have a coat with them when they enter the jail, can be protected from the elements if they are released in the winter. So far, he has collected more than 50 coats.
“My opinion is when they get out of jail is when things really get tough,” Bowar said.
Pitcher says she warns the women they meet with to begin considering how they will handle being released as changed people.
“That flame has to keep burning inside of people because people can become hopeless quickly until they truly have embraced Jesus and surrendered their lives to him. That’s why people end up going back to jail,” Pitcher said.
People drawn to jail ministry should check with their parishes or local jail to find out what needs or programs exist. Pitcher and Bowar said helping organizations that support inmates when they are released is important. Pitcher said programs exist that assist victims as they work through their pain and help communities process the trauma of crime and the fear it can bring.
Because of his experiences, Bowar is more accepting of people after their release.
“Getting involved with jail ministry made me recognize the ways in which humanity’s suffering and redemption are all bound together, and the Lord just leads us all on a journey towards restoration,” Pitcher said. “Sometimes I think we become so numb to the negativity around us, we forget that the brokenness can be fixed – even if you’re just a tiny little light shining, bringing in something, anything that leads people to Christ.”
This article was reprinted with permission from Our Northland Diocese