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Grand Rapids Prison Ministry

Inmates interested in Dominican Laity

Grand Rapids Dominican Brings Message of Hope to Prison Inmates

Charles Honey
Press Religion Editor

GRAND RAPIDS, MI -- June 9, 2008 Sister Elizabeth Barilla, 93, rolled in a wheelchair past inmates playing basketball and raking spacious prison grounds. A pleasant breeze blew across what looked like a small-college campus, except for prisoners’ blue togs and the sun glinting off razor wire.

Indeed, Sister Barilla was on an educational mission at the Muskegon Correctional Facility. She was impatient to arriv efor her monthly 6:15 p.m. class teaching the Bible and Catholic doctrine to a handful of the medium-security facility’s 1,300men.

She put on her nun’s veil as a long-haired inmate named Marc opened the door and greeted her graciously.“Sounds like they put a playing card in your wheel,” Marc joked about her whirring wheelchair.He took the chair from a prison staffer and pushed her to the classroom. She could have walked with a cane, but at age 93, Sister Barilla gladly accepted the ride.

It had been a long hike from the prison security checkpoint, where she walked through a metal detector, was patted down and held onto her veil. “They make me take it off because they think I’m hiding something,”she said with a chuckle.

After almost two years of teaching there, the Grand Rapids Dominican knows the drill well. The former Catholic school teacher puts up with security hassles so she can bring the gospel to convicts. “It was Jesus Christ who came to save us and redeem us from our plight,” she told five class members on a recent Tuesday evening. “All that he did for us showed the tremendous love God has for each and every human being.“We will share in God’s glory someday. Isn’t that wonderful?”

She began teaching prisoners after one of them requested a class about Dominican spirituality. Some inmates were interested in becoming Dominican Laity, people who strive to live according to the Dominican values of prayer, study, community and service. The Rev. James Motl, promoter of Dominican Laity for the Dominican Friars’ Central Province, asked West Michigan’s chapter of lay Dominicans to teach the inmates.

They began doing so in the summer of 2006, with Sister Barilla joining them soon after.The prisoners originally wanted to join the Dominican Laity, but high inmate turnover and insufficient lay volunteers made that impractical, Motl said. However, a group of prisoners in Boston has joined the Order, and Muskegon inmates could apply for membership once out of prison, he added.

Bob Croft, one of about a dozen local Dominican Laity,remembers the first time he went to the prison with Sister Barilla. It was a windy February day and, at that time lacking a wheelchair, she had to stop to catch her breath while walking across the yard.“Here’s this woman just determined to (teach) those people and spread the word of God,” recalled Croft, of Grand Rapids. “It’s really quite an amazing example."

“She’s not afraid at all,” he added. “She has a lot of courage and faith, and also a lot of charity to go in there and teach them the love of God.”‘ God sends volunteers like her to provide most of the religious instruction to those of the state’s 50,000 inmates who want it, said Russ Marlan, public information officer for the Michigan Department of Corrections.“These volunteers that come in and do this, they’re just god sends,” Marlan said. “A very important part of remaining crime-free is being around people involved in positive activities. That begins in prison."

Spiritual teacher: Sister Elizabeth Barilla explains biblical lessons to a class of inmates at Muskegon Correctional Facility. Sitting on her right is Ethellynne Niewiek, who is a volunteer.

Sister Barilla taught schools for more than 30 years after joining the Grand Rapids Dominicans.The Saskatchewan, Canada, native also taught in Hungary in the 1990s.She readily accepted the opportunity to teach prisoners, whom she regards as not so different from herself.

“Our guys, they’re good guys,” said Sister Barilla, her high voice carrying a trace of her Hungarian heritage. “You wouldn’t be able to tell them from an ordinary man on the street. The biggest thing is, they realize they’ve made a mistake and want to do better.”She relies on fellow volunteers like Ethellynne Niewiekto teach the basics of Dominican life.

Sister Barilla focuses on Scripture and theology.“One fellow said to me,‘You mean I have to forgive so and so?’” she recalled with an amused smile. “I said,‘Yeah, that’s what Jesus was telling us.’“I’m just trying to teach them what a true disciple of Jesus should be like.”She taught that in her latest visit to Muskegon inmates.She and Niewiek had to pass through three security gates and carry hand-held alarms in case they had trouble. They never have had to use them.

“Hi, how are you sister?” a prisoner named Joseph greeted her with a handshake and a bow. “I was married to a Mary,” he added with a laugh. He and a couple other class members had Bibles. Up to 20 men have been in past classes ,but several have left after being paroled.“Instead of saying the whole rosary today, we’ll just say the Hail Mary because we have a lot to do,” Sister Barilla told them. They recited with her, “Hail Mary, full of grace,the Lord is with thee ...

”She looked very much the teacher, sitting at a desk in a room lined with globes, books and posters. At the inmates’ request, her topics were salvation, how to get to heaven and modern Dominican saints. Beginning with Adam and Eve’s original sin, she explained King David was “a man after God’s own heart ”because he confessed his sins.“We are like David,” she told them. “We go to God and say, ‘I have sinned, have mercy on me.’ Then we try to do better.

”The prison includes men serving life sentences for murder. Others have been convicted of criminal sexual conduct, armed robbery or drug offenses. Sister Barilla does not know what crimes her students committed, nor does she ask.She had the men turn to Matthew 25:31, which she called “our final exam with Jesus."

She asked Joseph to read it.“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” Joseph read, as Sister Barilla smiled. “I was in prison and you came to visit me.”She then had Niewiek handout slips of paper listing acts of mercy, such as “visit the sick.” The men took flame shaped “gifts of the spirit” such as wisdom.S taying on track “We can be practicing these gifts or works of mercy, because it will help us on the road to heaven,” she said.

The inmates say her classes help them daily. “It helps to center my life alittle bit, keep me on track where I should be,” said Marc,a soft-spoken man who brought cups of water to the teachers. “It reinforces theknowledge that wherever I’m at, God’s there.

”Steven, an immigrant from Baghdad, called the class “a blessing” that reminds him of church. “This is the only place I feel like I’m in the world,” he said.Tony, who asked for the class originally, said it will help them in prison and beyond.“When someday we get released back into society, we’llbe able to take all of this with us and be good, law-abiding citizens,” he said.

The class closed with a prayer, the men crossing themselves. As they left, Sister Barilla said, “I want you guys to know I pray for you every day. ”Joseph warmly answered,“Thank you. I pray for you everyday, and twice on Sunday.”


Charles Honey



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