Near the end of a Catholic Leading Like Jesus Encounter, participants view a short video about a Catholic Charities program in New Orleans that takes young people out of incarceration and off the streets and helps their put their lives on track. Eventually, they learn how to make a living in the hospitality industry.
Called Café Reconcile, to date it has graduated more than 500 youths ages 16-22 from its 9-week program of basic life skills, interpersonal skills and work skills.
Although the video, produced by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, does not use the term "leading like Jesus," the testimony of people in the program describes an environment that's absolutely consistent with the principles of leading like Jesus.
The point of the video — which often brings tears to the eyes of Encounter participants — is that if the principles of Leading Like Jesus can work with adolescents and young adults coming out of jail, it can certainly work in environments where people are choosy about who they hire or accept as volunteers.
Now comes more evidence that learning how to lead like Jesus is having a powerful impact on people in jail who want to turn around their lives, develop healthy relationships and become faith-filled contributing members of society.
Yeshua Fellow Dick Kunnert became convinced 3 years ago that the ecumenical Lead Like Jesus Encounter experience could be a big help in prisoner rehabilitation efforts at the Winnebago County Jail in Rockford, IL. Working with Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI), Kunnert revised the Encounter format to conform to jail regulations and began team teaching to male prisoners with Ruth Fairchild, the Rockford coordinator of LSSI's Jail & Prison Ministry.
To date they have presented 11 Encounters to men in the jail, and have other Encounters scheduled for the rest of the year. A few months ago, after going through the Yeshua Institute's facilitator training, Laura Ortiz and Kathleen Behrens, began offering the program to women prisoners at the jail under the sponsorship of St. Rita's Parish in Rockford.
The prisoners' evaluations indicate that the Lead Like Jesus Encounter experience is having a great impact on their efforts to turn their lives around. Here are some typical comments from men in the program:
- If I lead like Jesus, basically nothing can stop me.
- I've found a better understanding of the Bible and Jesus and how to live a better future.
- (I've learned) that faith can move mountains and that I am somebody in Christ Jesus.
- (I've discovered) that God was there all the time.
- (I learned) that I need to be a leader in my home and to lead with love.
- It really opened my eyes and changed my way of thinking.
- God moved me, I believe I received what God called me to receive.
Meanwhile, the first ever Encounter for women prisoners prompted these comments:
- My family will benefit because I'm able to lead with positivity and not negativity.
- I can help (my family members) to help others and love one another.
- Even when you're down God brings people into your life to help you find your way and voice.
"Several women stated that the program raised their self esteem and appreciated the care shown them," says Kathleen Berens, who facilitated the program with Laura Ortiz. Meanwhile, many of the women expressed a hope for more classes so that they could discuss the material in greater depth.
"Laura and I were amazed at not only the amount of input we received from the women but also their grasp of the concepts we were presenting and their ability to apply it to their own unique situations," Behrens adds. Grateful for the opportunity to present the program, she says, "We look forward to what God has planned for us next."
A few months ago Fairchild called Kunnert to tell him that one of their recent graduates of the jail Encounters had called her to say how the experience had changed his life. "He said he took everything we had shared and was committed to being a Christian man. When he went to court he felt a miracle happened because all the charges against him were dropped. He now has a job driving a cross-country truck and is a happy man. He uses the workbook to review the key points of the Encounter and to stay focused. And he begged us not to stop holding the Encounters in the jail," Kunnert reports.
Sometimes participants in the program don't wait until they get out of jail to say how much they appreciate learning how to lead like Jesus. One prisoner recently sent Ruth a letter that read in part: "The people on the outside can never know how we are so grateful and blessed because of God's work through you. You show us that there is someone out there who does love us, believes in us and is willing to bless us with God's forgiveness and love." (See the full text of the letter below.)
Facilitators find that kind of feedback energizing. But it's not what keeps them inspired to continue their work. As Kunnert explains: "When you spend time with people in jail you soon realize that the comment 'there but for the grace of God go I' has validity. You are with people who have made bad decisions. Our goal is to help them refocus their lives as disciples of Jesus. We want to convince them that the only road to happiness in this life is to align oneself to the values of loving God and one's neighbor as Jesus taught."
He adds: "Our primary task is to serve others. We help them write a mission statement that speaks to the purpose of why God put them on the planet. We challenge them to pick core values by which they will live, and create for themselves a goal for a different future where they will contribute to building the kingdom of God."
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