Dignity for the Prisoner

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St. Augustine expressed the principle, “In the Old Testament, the New Testament is concealed; in the New Testament, the Old Testament is revealed.” I can say confidently that this allegorical imagery can be applied to my faith life, as well. Like the Old Testament prophets, how could I know what God was preparing for me? It is only in looking back at those events that those connections clearly come together—despite my human ignorance to the whole process.

I am the son of a Detroit policeman. In the 1960s and ’70s, I attended Catholic grade school, and I looked to my parents and to the priests and religious sisters as models for life. So it is really no surprise that I would  “play priest” in our basement, “saying” Mass (in Latin) with homemade vestments, a cup sprayed gold for my chalice, and “wonder bread” cut out for hosts. In my late teens and early twenties, a series of events pulled me away from an active faith, but I returned as a stronger, more committed Catholic who understood his faith intellectually and with a growing spirituality.

As a single father of two growing teenage girls, I applied to the permanent diaconate. After five years of formation, I was ordained by Adam Cardinal Maida in 2005 along with three other men. In the years after my formation, I ministered at Scott Correctional Facility, a women’s state prison. We built a solid Catholic community conducting RCIA and Bible studies. The first Baptism I ever celebrated as an ordained deacon was in a prison, using a metal mixing bowl to hold the water and a paper cup.

In 2010, the Society of St. Vincent De Paul in Detroit was asked to assume the responsibilities of prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Detroit. Over a three-year period of trial and error, I established what is now called the St. Vincent De Paul Justice Initiative. With the help of two additional deacons, one functioning as our accountant and the other as a counselor, and a handful of lay ministers with great hearts for the poor, the SVDP JI has grown into a prison outreach service that ministers to newly released men and women from state, federal, and county correctional systems.

Many, if not most, parolees are released into halfway houses. These “homes” serve only to supply a place to sleep and meals. Clothes, hygiene needs, and other basic needs are not provided. Our ministry gives these basic needs to each individual who comes to our facility. Each person is given six pair of underwear, socks, new shoes, and a winter coat, along with basic hygiene items. Each person is received with love and is treated with dignity—something a parolee rarely experiences. In addition, we counsel them on other issues they are experiencing. We are open two or three Saturdays a month; however, the ministry is operating seven days a week with scheduling appointments and speaking to individuals.

In addition, I have served on the formation team and function at my parish preaching, baptizing, conducting funerals, and teaching the faith. The Lord has truly blessed me to serve him in this way. I would not take back one minute. 

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About Author

Dcn. Mike Chesley

Deacon Mike Chesley graduated from Sacred Heart and was ordained a permanent deacon for the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2005. He is assigned to St. Patrick Parish in White Lake. Deacon Mike is the chaplain of the St. Vincent De Paul Justice Initiative, a prison outreach program that ministers throughout the Archdiocese of Detroit.

1 Comment

  1. Linda Marie Barthlow on

    Deacon Mike: In reading your story, it kind of parallels my life too. my dad was a Detroit policeman, I too grew up in during the 60’s and 70’s in Detroit, going to Catholic schools, with aspirations of being a nun though. but, life takes different turns. later, after leaving the church and finally finding my way back, I found something was sorely missing. someone suggested I might try prison ministry. I did and I never looked back. I am at a men’s correctional facility and absolutely couldn’t think of any place better to evangelize and be evangelized. (these men give back as much if not more than I could ever give, I believe about our faith). how life hands you miracles if you only open you hands and hearts.

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