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Whose Sheep?

How we can mirror the Good Shepherd in response to the realities of addiction and incarceration

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Addiction. No one likes to talk about it, much less come to terms with the fact that the person sitting next to you at your kid’s soccer game, in front of you at church or beside you on the bus has almost certainly been touched by addiction in some way. Or maybe you have. That’s the thing. Addiction is an indiscriminate disease. It crosses boundaries of gender, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc.

While indiscriminate, we do know those who struggle with the disease of addiction are more likely to end up incarcerated. Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than 1.3 million have a substance use disorder — that’s 60%. The total U.S. population with a substance use disorder is 5%. Such a reality needs a response — the Gospel demands of us a response.

In Matthew 18:10-14, we hear the parable of the lost sheep. The familiar story depicts a shepherd’s urgency and concern for one sheep of the flock that has gone missing. However, we rarely take a moment to imagine what lost sheep might be experiencing. Sheep are communal animals who find safety in numbers as they watch out for one another. It takes something drastic to divide a sheep from the flock, and once that happens, the lost sheep is confused — wandering around stressed and without the safety of the community. The shepherd sets out with determination and hopes to find the sheep. Once the shepherd finds the displaced sheep, they tend to any wounds that may have occurred and without reprimand or judgment walk alongside or carry the sheep back to the flock, to the safety of the community. Such a restoration of the whole is what the Gospel calls us to. As Christ himself said, “Amen, I say to you, [the shepherd] rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray” (v. 13).

If just 1 out of 100 moves the shepherd to action, how much more concern should there be for the 1 in 20 Americans who get lost in the darkness of addiction? What can we do to bring them out of the margins and back to the community? And what should we do about the 3 out of 5 incarcerated Americans who struggle with addiction? They have been doubly marginalized. How do we respond to this? How do we, like the Good Shepherd, set out with hope, non-judgment and a grace-filled presence to accompany our sisters and brothers who have been divided from the community?

Shedding Light

The Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC) seeks to shed light on this very issue. CPMC promotes ministry to all those affected by incarceration by recruiting, supporting and empowering people called to be like the Good Shepherd. The coalition was borne out of discernment among national leaders in the areas of ministry to the incarcerated, detained and people returning from incarceration. Guided by experts and the needs of ministers in the field, CPMC offers training, formation and networking to prison, jail and reentry chaplains on racism, immigration-detention ministry, trauma-informed care, human trafficking, the spirituality of accompaniment and more.

In collaboration with the National Association of Catholic Chaplains and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the coalition launched a foundational training program that sets standards for volunteers in this important ministry. The training and formation program provides participants with an opportunity to hear from seasoned ministers, reflect deeply on their call to ministry and become competent in basic ministerial principles for ministry to those affected by incarceration and detention.

On Nov. 1, 2022, CPMC hosted a conversation titled “Reclaiming Wholeness: Addiction, Recovery, Community.” Moderated by Cardinal Joseph Tobin of the Archdiocese of Newark, three panelists — Jim Wahlberg (“The Big Hustle,” and the film “What About the Kids?”), Eveline Duhart (Ignatian Spirituality Project) and Lisa DeLaura (JUST of DuPage County, Wheaton, Illinois) — talked about their experiences related to addiction and/or incarceration. This virtual gathering provided an opening for chaplains, ministers, loved ones, community members and those in recovery to become compassionately aware and gain a deeper understanding of the issues surrounding addiction and incarceration. Most importantly, however, the audience heard about each panelist’s journey toward reclaiming wholeness — of their journey back to the community — and how now they, like the Good Shepherd, walk with others who are wrestling with addiction and the effects of incarceration.

Cardinal Tobin initiated the conversation by calling to mind Jesus’ experience of being rejected from his home community and his pilgrimage to become the Christ. Expanding on the theme of pilgrimage, he urged the audience to consider that “no one gets sober and stays sober by themselves”; just as in pilgrimage (or in this case recovery and sobriety) “holiness is not found when you get there, but in the people you meet along the way.” We see in this a return to the community, a return to the flock. What does this tell us about ministering to people with an addiction?

Walking with People

DeLaura offered key insights into effective programming to reduce recidivism and relapse rates. Emphasizing that “reentry starts on day one of incarceration,” she highlighted the importance of walking with people during their time of incarceration and after they’ve been released — particularly the first 72 hours after being released. The first three days are when relapse and recidivism are most likely to occur. DeLaura shared that JUST has “someone literally meet them at the door when they leave incarceration to connect them to treatment centers, halfway houses and to field questions they might have.” The shepherd goes to find the sheep and welcomes them back into the fold with compassion and grace.

This is a critical conversation. In a time when over 500 Americans are dying every day due to alcohol or opioid addiction, and the vast majority of people who are incarcerated fit the definition of having a substance use disorder, we are called to be Easter people — to be agents of restoration and resurrection.

As Duhart said during the event, “The God of my understanding allows space to learn, grow and be open to what he has given me, and to be open to others.”

This crisis calls for a posture of humility and openness toward the other. Furthermore, Pope Francis challenges the narrative of punitive recourse, positing that each person with a substance use disorder “must be listened to, understood, loved, and insofar as possible, healed and purified. … Each person must be valued and appreciated in his or her dignity in order to enable them to be healed. The dignity of the person is what we are called to seek out.”

Show Up and Listen

Just as addiction is indiscriminate in its effects, there are any number of ways you can begin to mirror the Good Shepherd in response to the realities of addiction and incarceration. Jim Wahlberg (Wahl Street Productions), speaking from his own experience of incarceration and addiction, suggests the most important thing we can do is show up and listen. Our presence in these spaces offers hope, and “when I have hope there’s a possibility that I can change my life.” The Good Shepherd sets out with earnest hope to bring the lost sheep back to the safety of the community.

The streets and the prisons are not comfortable places. We pray not for comfortable ministries but to be people of strength wherever God places us. In the person of Christ the Servant, we are to be attentive. By the graces we receive from holy orders, we are interiorly moved not to “do” but to “be.” Being present is not about doing; it is about being and trusting in God’s will, not ours. Only from the fruit of a deep and personal relationship with Jesus Christ will the grace and compassion of the Good Shepherd flow. We are here to help him through holy listening and sacred presence. We carry Christ to others in the relationships we form and the commitments we keep.

The darkness of addiction, especially in ministering to incarcerated or detained individuals, can be overwhelming. The strong and sound voice of the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition (CPMC) tells us we do not do this alone. CPMC is there to help us and support us along the way. Seek them out and learn of their excellent training and formation concerning these most intense encounters. Someone in prison needs to talk. Are you willing to listen?

DEACON RONNIE LASTOVICA, of the Diocese of Austin, serves as the pastoral care coordinator for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Gatesville Region. JARROD KINKLEY is the manager of special projects for the Catholic Prison Ministries Coalition coordinating special events, graphic and website design, administrative support and project management.

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