Holy Spirit calls volunteers to feed the spiritual hungry in Nebraska’s state prisons
February 17, 2023
John Sabaliauska remembers rummaging through garbage on the streets of Germany looking for something to eat when he was only three or four. His family had moved there from Lithuania, and food was scarce with World War II raging. While digging for food one morning, he looked up and saw people reaching their arms through the prison gates across the street from where he stood. They were beckoning him over to bring them food.
There was no food to be found – or shared – but the memory of those prisoners with their hands outstretched asking for help has always stuck with him. Today he thinks he knows why. The Holy Spirit was calling him to minister to prisoners in search of something that would satisfy their hunger.
Troy, an inmate at the Omaha Correctional Center, admits to looking for food, not Jesus when he attended his first Alpha meeting at the center. In his written testimonial at the end of the 11-week program, he wrote that he found something much more satisfying.
“I came to this class because it said, ‘free food,’” wrote Troy, whose last name is omitted for privacy. He wrote that the egg casseroles were good, but the program was amazing, especially in an environment that can feel lonely, confrontational and repetitive.
“For those of us who don’t get visits, it’s nice to see people that we don’t see every day. I’ve always had a problem with denominationalism, everybody arguing about who is right … and through this class, I learned that we can all love one another.”
Troy’s classmates mirror these sentiments in their written testimonies:
- “It brought me closer to God and closer to my family. If you came to find a better life, this is the place to be.”
- “I am one of those guys guilty of coming here for the food. But not even an hour later, when I got back to my room, I was reading the gospels. It helped me to see that I’m not alone.”
- “I came in here thinking this was not for me. I found hope. I’m thankful I met God, and I met Jesus here.”
- “It’s all about relationships, with each other and with God. It worked on me.”
The first Alpha program for inmates was launched in the Tecumseh State Correctional Center in 2016. Jodi Meyer is the network director for Nebraska for Alpha USA. She and a team of volunteers administered the program.
Since Alpha was launched in 2016, it has been held in five state prisons in Nebraska, serving over 400 inmates. When COVID hit, the program continued over Zoom. In-person programs have started back.
In 1950, Sabaliauska’s family moved to America and eventually settled in Omaha because of its large Lithuanian population. His family attended St. Anthony Catholic Church in South Omaha. He later married and had four children. He learned about Alpha when a neighbor asked him and his wife to participate. His experience with Alpha would come in handy years later.
In a video he was asked to record for Alpha, he talked about his experiences leading Alpha programs in Nebraska correctional facilities. In that video, Sabaliauska said that he could never shake the feeling that he was called to do something for prisoners ever since he was young. He finally approached Deacon Al Aulner, coordinator of the Jail and Prison Ministry for the Archdiocese of Omaha, about volunteering in the prison ministry.
“He (Deacon Aulner) asked me, ‘Why do you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Well, I had a conversion, and the Holy Spirit’s leading me to do this.’”
When Sabaliauska found out that there was an opportunity to help lead the Alpha program at Tecumseh State Correctional Center, he recalls his response. “I said … ‘Sign me up. Put me in coach. I’m ready.’”
A report from Barna Group, an organization that tracks cultural and religious trends, states that 95% of inmates who participated in Alpha reported an improved relationship with Jesus, 93% said they were better at dealing with daily challenges and 87% were better able to deal with anxiety.
Those who work in prisons can also attest to the positive changes. Amber, whose last name is omitted for privacy, is a correction officer who helped supervise Alpha groups for inmates. She wrote in a testimonial on the Alpha program that she witnessed a difference in the inmates who participated.
“I’ve seen firsthand how guys enjoy it and miss it when it is canceled,” Amber wrote. “I’ve seen plenty of men become emotional at (Alpha) graduation, and crying in prison isn’t usually acceptable.”
She also said that misconduct occurs less often among Alpha participants.
Greg is an inmate at Tecumseh State Correctional Center who participated in Alpha and now assists with the program. He wrote that many men signing up for Alpha are the ones he would have least expected. He also notes that those are the men that experience the most growth.
“As I speak to them, I know that they are thinking about making a change in their lives,” Greg writes. “I see these small changes in attitude as I visit with them. … I know that their participation in Alpha is a big part of the changes in thought that will lead to more noticeable changes in behavior in the future. Just them thinking about making positive changes is a large step for many of them.”
Meyer is often asked if Alpha is a Catholic program. She tells people that it’s an introduction to Jesus that answers the questions, why did Jesus die, and what does it mean for my life?
“It is Catholic in the sense that everything it presents is Catholic, but it is also used by every Christian denomination because it covers the things that we all hold in common,” she said.
Meyer stresses that Alpha is not a formation process. She said that many people – Catholics included – have spent their entire lives sitting in pews but still haven’t encountered the Lord in a profound way. Alpha allows them to do this.
Sabaliauska has witnessed firsthand the nourishment Alpha provides to those in need of spiritual food. While he can’t go back in time and feed the starving prisoners he saw so many years ago in Germany, he feels like he is doing something now because of that experience.
“I knew in my heart right then and there; this is exactly what (the Holy Spirit) wanted me to do when I walked in that the center that first day,” he said. “This picture came back when I was 4 years old. These people in the center begging for spiritual food connect back to when I was 4 years old. No doubt in my mind. … the Holy Spirit leads us. If we open our hearts to it, let Him do his work. Pray that you follow it.”