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Janet Murnan of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion works on a letter to an inmate Dec. 1 in her home. On the table is some of the stationery she uses and past correspondence with inmates. Photo by Joe Ruff/Staff.

Prison ministry makes every day special, especially Christmas and holidays

"first and foremost

 

i’m thankful & greatful

for the correspondent’s card …

Because just seeing some body write my name down on a card to wish me a Blessed Holiday for Thanksgiving & Christmas … means a lot to me in this time of need …"

Inmate, Nebraska State Penitentiary, Lincoln, to CrossOver Prison Ministry, Nov. 24, 2017

 

 

That letter of gratitude, addressed to all volunteers at CrossOver Prison Ministries of Omaha, came last month to PO Box 3791.

It arrived at the ministry’s mailing address with dozens of other letters from inmates, most of them addressed to specific, anonymous pen pal volunteers working with the ministry through state prisons and correctional centers in Omaha, Lincoln, McCook, York and Tecumseh.

"That’s what keeps us keeping on. Any one of them like this, I share it with the (volunteers)," said La Verne Belt, a member of New Life Presbyterian Church in Omaha, team leader of the group’s pen pal volunteers and a founder of the ministry that began its Christian-based, nondenominational, nonprofit service in 2005.

And the correspondence is not confined to Thanksgiving and Christmas.

More than 20 volunteers, many of them Catholic, write letters or postcards to three or more prisoners once or twice each month, sharing notes year-round. They send Christmas, Easter and birthday cards. They send letters of goodwill and good luck during and after parole hearings, reviews and release dates, and a monthly newsletter with inmate art and poetry – even free study Bibles.

 

ETERNALLY GRATEFUL

Mark Boyer remembers feeling grateful for the letters he received when he was in prison for a year, about a decade ago, after multiple violations of driving while intoxicated.

"It was the only mail I got and it made my day," Boyer said.

Now a chef and member of First Christian Church in Omaha, where CrossOver holds its meetings, Boyer is a member of the ministry’s board, and his wife helps with correspondence.

"When I got out, I wanted to know who CrossOver was. It touched my heart and I wanted to give."

 

NETWORK OF VOLUNTEERS

Learning more about CrossOver after his 2007 release, Boyer joined the group, which in 2011 merged with Family & Friends of Inmates of Omaha, bringing a number of Catholics into the organization.

The Catholic community continues to contribute, including Janet Murnan, a member of St. Columbkille Parish in Papillion, who began writing letters to three inmates more than a year ago, after seeing a bulletin announcement while attending Mass at Christ the King Church in Omaha.

Recently retired, she was inspired by Pope Francis’ 2016 Year of Mercy and looking for ways to help others. She placed the announcement on her desk at home, where it stayed for about a week.

"Probably it was the Holy Spirit," Murnan said of her returning time and again to that blurb in the bulletin. "It was calling my name. I do like writing letters, and this is the kind of thing not a lot of people would do."

 

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

Indeed, more volunteers are needed. Some write to as many as nine inmates at a time; three is more common. About 90 inmates currently are receiving letters, but there often is a waiting list of more than 20 inmates.

To participate, inmates must have attended a Christian prayer service in prison or taken other steps toward faith, and requested a correspondence with CrossOver.

While many people believe inmates are receiving only what they deserve, helping them is one way to advance a corporal work of mercy, visiting the imprisoned, and it is an opportunity to teach them about the love of Jesus Christ – to evangelize, Murnan said. Letter writers don’t tout one religion over another, but they do try to share hope and spread the faith, she said.

"We talk about the new evangelization," Murnan said. "Here is a captive audience of more than 2 million people (incarcerated nationwide) who will save your letters forever and read and reread them."

 

DIFFICULT … BUT REWARDING

It can be a difficult ministry, she said. Volunteers are encouraged to use pen names to guard their identities, and prisoners send letters to the one post office box, with CrossOver distributing them to the volunteers.

Some inmates can be manipulative, asking volunteers to go against the rules and contact their relatives, or share more than they should, Murnan said.

But the letters provide outside contact for inmates, the knowledge that people care and a sense of hope for the future, she said. And it can be incredibly rewarding, as when CrossOver received that "thank you" note from the Lincoln inmate, Murnan said.

"If they don’t get any mail, nobody writes their name down, it’s like they’ve lost their identity," she said. "So to get a piece of mail … it’s like ‘I still exist. I’m somebody.’"

 

PRAYERS

Murnan, who uses a pen name, prays before she writes, and says a prayer as she places letters in the mail. She listens for Bible verses or other inspiring words to share, and she often places a holy card into each envelope.

"I ask the Holy Spirit to guide my thoughts and tell them what they need to hear," Murnan said.

"Hope is the main thing," she said. "They have no hope when they are there. I’ll suggest Catholic ideas, like offering up their disappointments and sufferings. ... I give them ideas to offer this up, for friends in jail who don’t believe, or members of their families."

"I firmly believe in evangelization," she said. "You have to speak up. You have to say something. You can’t just take yourself to church every week, and not tell anybody about it."

CrossOver: Many ways to help

In addition to its letter-writing ministry, CrossOver Prison Ministries has about 30 volunteers who among other things help parolees adjust to life outside prison with a re-entry program at First Christian Church in Omaha.

It is looking for someone to re-invigorate its long-running Bible studies and prayer services behind prison walls, which ended this year. It also runs a support group for people with family members or friends in prison, and holds a Christmas party each year for inmates’ children.

People interested in the ministry can write to CrossOver Prison Ministries at PO Box 3791, Omaha NE 68103.

The Archdiocese of Omaha also has a prison and jail ministry program, led by Deacon Al Aulner, pastoral coordinator at Holy Family Parish in Omaha.

As part of this outreach, Archbishop George J. Lucas plans to preside at a Mass on Christmas Eve at the Omaha Correctional Center.

Deacon Aulner said he collaborates with CrossOver, often referring people interested in writing letters to the nondenominational program.

"CrossOver does a good job," he said.

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