Parishioners of Notre Dame Parish in North Caldwell, they admitted their calling is not for everyone. But for those who reach out to the incarcerated, they said it is a fulfilling experience. The mother and son deal with people of all faiths who are, in Attara-Fink's words, "hungry for spiritual life."
Thomas got involved two years ago when Deacon Gregory Quinn, co-director of the Prison Ministry program and Thomas's sponsor, suggested it as a Confirmation project. Deacon Quinn's ministry was profiled last year (see The Catholic Advocate, Oct. 25, 2006).
The teenager worked for six months at Newark's Kintock Jail for non-violent offenders. He presented Scripture readings and helped with the reflections at Mass. He said the experience was enjoyable and that the inmates were "friendly and easy to get along with." Among those who made an impression on him was 60-year-old Lynn who had committed credit card fraud. She eventually moved to Colorado, married and praises the Catholic programs of prison ministry for turning her life around. Thomas has stayed in contact with her.
Drawn to prison ministry, Thomas next went to another non-violent offender facility-Delaney Hall Assessment Center on Doremus Avenue in Newark. It was there where he joined his mother in looking after the spiritual welfare of inmates.
At Delaney Hall, Thomas continued with the readings and giving reflections at Mass. In addition, during major holidays, he and his mother provided religious services along with dessert and coffee for large ecumenical sit-down dinners. Overall, Thomas said, he found inmates at Delaney Hall to be "less hostile, more open and appreciative."
Before becoming involved with prison ministry, Attara-Fink worked at programs feeding the poor. She "transitioned" to Delaney Hall about three years ago because there was a "greater need." Attara-Fink now works there every Sunday.
Explaining her calling to the ministry, Attara-Fink said she connects well with inmates, whom she described as "good listeners who give back a lot." Spiritually, Attara-Fink stressed, "I receive more than I give." She recalled the moving experience of providing reading glasses each week to inmates so that they can read their bibles.
Attara-Fink vividly described one inmate at Delaney named Ulysses. When he left the program, "he knew the Bible inside and out," she said. He holds the Bible, he told Attara- Fink, "tighter than any woman." Today Ulysses is a motivational speaker who has "turned his life around," she added.
For two hours on Friday nights, Attara-Fink is at the Essex County Correctional Facility on Doremus Avenue, which has an inmate population that typically ranges up to 2,500. She meets with inmates at two "pods" in the housing unit, providing religious services and literature. Attara-Fink also goes to cell to cell to see gang members who have committed serious infractions of prison rules.
Thomas wants to continue in prison ministry and plans to go to Delaney Hall and the Essex County Correctional Facility on a more regular basis. When asked about the safety factor in such a harsh environment, Thomas said that most prisoners are very friendly. "I always feel safe," his mother added.
Attara-Fink said she strives to "maintain consistency" during her visits and considers the inmates "an extension of my family. They are part of the family of God. I trust God and this (ministry) is in God's hands."
Thomas advised other young people contemplating a role in prison ministry to sample the experience at a nonviolent facility as a first step. "Tensions can get high and if you find it is not for you, remember that is not your fault," he explained.
His mother urges interested adults to consider the experience, saying prison ministry is "not like any other ministry." It is what you make it, she said, stressing that Christ "is with" the inmates.
Deacon David Loman and Deacon Gregory Quinn are co-directors of the prison ministry for the Archdiocese of Newark. Deacon Loman can be contacted at (201)310-7690 while Deacon Quinn is available at (973)650-2098. The Office of Prison Ministry is located at 15 Baldwin Rd., Saddle River, N.J. 07458.