Jail chaplains: ‘See the face of Jesus in inmates’ faces’
A small group of chaplains ministering at Los Angeles County’s Twin Towers Jail entered the room and faced the inmate pods, where several of the incarcerated were already lining up at their pod doors to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday evening.
Led by head Catholic chaplain Art Alvarez, the four female chaplain volunteers from San Gabriel Mission and Incarnation Church in Glendale would spend the next two hours distributing ashes on the foreheads of 350 men and women among those serving time at the seven-story correctional facility. Daytime chaplains had earlier distributed ashes to 300 inmates.
Nearly 5,000 prisoners are housed at the Twin Towers, one of the world’s largest incarceration facilities, where Catholics comprise the second biggest majority after Protestants. Tower 1, which houses inmates suffering from psychiatric illnesses, is the largest mental institution in the U.S.
Wearing her special walking shoes to traverse the long, winding corridors of gray concrete floors, volunteer jail chaplain and Incarnation parishioner Lenore Solis, 55, arrived after a busy day at her tax preparation company. She got involved in detention ministry after meeting the jail’s senior chaplain in a Catholic Bible Institute class at Loyola Marymount University over a decade ago.
“He invited me to the jail, asked for help and here I am 13 years later,” said Solis. Encountering so many inmates with substance abuse issues, she took an addiction counseling course as well as criminal justice addiction professional classes at LMU and is now state certified as an addiction counselor and criminal justice professional.
“Ministry with the inmates is a constant reality check reminding me that I am a sinner,” reflected Solis. “I endeavor to bring an honest dialogue to provide hope to the hopeless tempered with the reality of their incarceration and, many times, the addiction or mental illness that led to their incarceration.”
According to Solis, no inmate should feel isolated or alone because God is in everyone. “Jail chaplains are there to help the incarcerated find or connect with the God that is missing in their lives,” said Solis. “We plant the seed that they will nurture to full growth and knowledge in the peace that can only be found in the embrace of our dear Lord.”
“God signed me up for this and I love it,” said San Gabriel Mission eucharistic minister Sylvia Orona, 59, who was encouraged to try detention ministry by her fellow parishioner Belinda Baltazar, 55. “I prayed about it and asked God to equip me with what I have to say.”
Orona’s first detention ministry experience occurred five years ago on Mother’s Day at the women’s Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood, where she shared her story of being a divorcée and cancer survivor. “The more I went, the more they trusted me,” said Orona. Three years ago, she began volunteering at Twin Towers, where she has “the privilege” of presenting the Word to incarcerated men and women, aged 18-80.
“Some of them need a spiritual mom,” explained Orona. “The ones who are the most notorious are very sweet, very soft-spoken.”
“I like to give people hope,” said fellow San Gabriel Mission parishioner Baltazar. Standing only 4-foot-10, the chaplain volunteer often had to stretch to apply ashes to much taller inmates. “I have a calling. I love people,” was how she simply explained her seven-year detention ministry, mostly served at CRDF.
Alvarez, 59, a parishioner at St. Cyprian’s in Long Beach who became Senior Catholic Chaplain at the Twin Towers nearly three years ago after seven years volunteering at CRDF, told The Tidings that many Catholics are afraid of detention ministry because they think the inmates only want to break out of jail and hurt people.
Contrary to that perception, Alvarez says that no inmate has ever insulted or harmed one of his 15 volunteer chaplains. “All they want to do is to tell their story to somebody,” said Alvarez.
He longs for another 15 volunteers to expand the highly successful program, “Finding the ‘Way’ in Jail,” where facilitators discuss Christian solutions to real-life problems and allow inmates to share their personal experiences.
“Everybody has an overwhelming amount of energy [in jail] — they don’t know how to sit down and contemplate God,” explained Alvarez, who seeks to convey God’s love and mercy during his one-on-one talks with inmates who have requested chaplain visits. Last month, there were 400 inmate requests for a one-on-one 10-minute talk with a chaplain.
Alvarez has received several letters from former inmates who write things like, “You helped me so much to see a different point of view;” “Now I’m really connected to God,” and “I’m sober for the first time; I’ll think about [faith].”
He wishes that more people would consider detention ministry and discover that “it’s not difficult to lend an ear and see the face of Jesus in inmates’ faces.”
To learn more about detention ministry at the Twin Towers Jail, contact Art Alvarez at (213) 893-5054.