By Rob Kundert, Special to The Witness
EPWORTH – Hope is a powerful thing. Even a little bit can turn a person’s life around. Ask three deacons of the Archdiocese of Dubuque, who offer hope to those who lost it after bad decisions put them behind bars.
“That’s what we provide, a little glimmer of hope,” said Deacon Bill Hickson, coordinator of Jail & Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities. “We plant the seeds of compassion and provide a little bit of vision, leadership and guidance and the Holy Spirit fills in the gaps.”
For their dedication to this ministry, Divine Word College honored Hickson and his brother deacons, Bill Biver and Tom Lang, with the Matthew 25 Award for 2017, at a prayer service and banquet on Wednesday, March 22. Their work helping former prisoners avoid a return to prison or jail is significant.
Nationally, 76 percent of former prisoners return within five years. In Iowa, it’s approximately 32 percent. Among those who participate in the archdiocesan jail and prison ministry programs it is less than 18 percent.
“These men embody the spirit of Chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel,” said Len Uhal, vice president for vocations/admissions at DWC, who nominated them for the award. “All three have been effective in their ministries by helping others make changes in their lives.” Divine Word established the Matthew 25 Award in 2001 to honor those in or connected to the area, who minister in the spirit of Matthew 25:35-36. Deacon Biver first experienced prison ministry in the early 1980s through New Life Ministries. Since 1991, he has volunteered with Dubuque Area Congregations United (DACU), where he helps organize visits to the Dubuque County Jail. In 2001, after Deacon Tom Lang became director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate, Monsignor Russell Bleich asked that the broader deacon community get more involved in prison ministry.
A task force, which included Deacon Biver and Deacon Ed Weber of Waterloo, surveyed the 29 jails and seven residential facilities in the archdiocese and came up with a plan to support the more established ministries and strengthen those that needed growth. They soon found an area of need-after care. “We realized that when they returned to their communities, that’s where the real challenges were,” Deacon Lang said. “They get out of jail or prison, but they can’t find jobs and things don’t work out, so they reoffend just to go back because it’s safer for them.”
Working with parole officers and residential facility personnel, the deacons developed two successful programs. Mentoring matches a past offender with a volunteer that offers him or her support, guidance and most importantly, someone to talk to. They meet once per week, with maybe a phone call in between. A Circle of Support and Accountability is a group of four or five people, including the mentor, which meets with the person every two weeks. Based on the Native American concept of “Restorative Justice,” it calls upon the person to take responsibility for their crime and recognize the damage done to the victim and the community.
In turn, the circle surrounds the person with people who are dedicated to helping him or her develop a productive life.
“God usually is involved behind the scenes,” Deacon Hickson said. “We found so many times that the people in the circle are exactly the kinds of people that the individual needed in his or her life.” From getting a job, housing, or transportation to dealing with medical, family or spiritual needs, the circle connects the person to those that can help within the community. But fundamental to the success of these programs are the 200 volunteers who step forward to be mentors or join a circle of support. “Our volunteers are the greatest, so dedicated,” Deacon Lang said. “We couldn’t do this without them.”
The deacons are also involved in Drug Court, which is found in some cities. Instead of going to prison or jail, the offender sets goals and, surrounded by his or her supporters, goes before a judge once per week to give an accounting of their progress. If they can stay out of trouble for a set period of time, their prison term is suspended.
“These three men feel a passion to bring a sense of hope and the light of Christ to those who have experienced the judicial system,” Uhal said. “It is appropriate to recognize them, honor them and thank them for their service to some of the least among us.”
PHOTO: (l to r) Deacons Bill Biver, Bill Hickson and Tom Lang pose with Father Tim Lenchak, SVD, president of Divine Word College, as they hold plaques they received to commemorate their reception of the Matthew 25 Award.