JORDAN — Each Thursday morning, a small team of volunteers attends Mass or Communion service at bright Our Lady of Lourdes Church here. They then move to the rectory to organize stacks of letters from 1,500 prison inmates from the western states and several dozen kindly correspondents on the outside. It's a tiny post office of mercy.
Most of the envelopes contain assignments in courses on anger management, addiction or parenting. But inmates and mentors include personal notes, too. The rectory serves as a single delivery point so that volunteers need not reveal their addresses. Correspondents even use pseudonyms, since such relationships could be tricky once prisoners are released. But the protections don't block the human warmth that gets exchanged on the pages.
"I find hope, encouragement and inspiration," one Oregon State Penitentiary prisoner wrote. "What you are doing here is truly awesome."
Prisoners get packets of reading and quizzes to take and mail back to the central post office box. The letters then get forwarded to the volunteers, who assess the work. When inmates complete a course, that goes on their records as a plus. The program has spread by word of mouth among inmates.
The visionary behind the correspondence ministry is 67-year-old Billie Walter, a former preschool teacher who at age 50 sold her big house overlooking the ocean and purchased a rundown motel in the California desert near San Diego. There, with her own troubled marriage annulled, she began welcoming homeless and lost souls on the Mexican border.
Walter's dramatic move was sparked by becoming Catholic and developing a new habit: contemplative prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
She had many successes at her rag-tag rescue mission, but had little luck with the ex-cons, who came out of prison with a bitterness and fear that bollixed any chance of making contributions to society. They usually ended up back in jail. Walter decided to start working with offenders while they were on the inside so they would have a better chance on the outside.
The new venture included the correspondence program, begun earlier by Father John Auther, a California Jesuit.
A pinched sciatic nerve disabled Walter for more than two years. In 2005, she came to live in the small Oregon town of Lyons and help her 90-year-old mother. Though she left the rescue mission behind, she brought the prison correspondence ministry with her. Walter has been using her own Social Security checks to pay for postage and office supplies, but recently began getting help from the Archdiocese of Portland. Father Ed Coleman gives the ministry the Jordan office space.
More than a third of U.S. prison inmates get no visits and no mail. This ministry changes that.
"They love to get something at mail call," says Walter, who also visits prisons to teach courses face to face, including sessions on contemplative prayer.
Inmates disclose in writing they would never reveal in a class or in group therapy. For example, one man in an anger management essay discussed how his parents had kept him locked in a closet over a period of eight months. He would never let that out in the closely-guarded society of prison, where guards and fellow inmates could use such knowledge against him.
"They share things heavy on the heart," Walter says.
One female inmate describes how she is still hoping for forgiveness after a momentary act of rage 30 years ago.
There are stories of prison conversions, but mostly it's a slow and steady healing. In many cases, the correspondents may never know what comes of the inmates. But the group keeps praying and writing, focuses more on being faithful than on charting successes.
"We want to reach out and show them God's love," Walter says. "We don't lecture, criticize or preach. We just know it's such a blessing of so many. It is a tossup who gets blessed more — the volunteers or the inmates."
Of the 50 volunteers who work from home, 18 are from Oregon. More are always needed. Many who join say they are inspired by Jesus' words: "When I was in prison, you visited me." They also recall that these rough-and-tumble convicts were once cute, innocent children.
"We are supposed to find Jesus in the face of everyone," says Patricia Collins, a volunteer mentor and letter sorter from St. Bernard Church in Scio.
DeAnne Sumpter, 73, is a member of Our Lady of Lourdes and a former teacher at the local school. She volunteers in the prison correspondence ministry because she has known people who have gone to prison. They are not all evil, she explains.
"I don't hold it against them," Sumpter says. "They deserve a second or third chance."
Sarah Lackner, a 26-year-old from Jordan, has volunteered among people in Latin America who are very poor. But U.S. inmates seem poorer in many ways, she says, because of unmet social needs. That said, Lackner continues sorting envelopes.
"When I first started prison ministry, I thought these are people who are scary," says Dawn Bentz, a 30-year-old member of Our Lady of Lourdes. "But when you hear people's stories, it's easier to treat them with dignity and just to listen and try to be like Jesus for them."
There is a waiting list of prisoners who want to take courses. That's because of a dearth of volunteer correspondents. Volunteers say the program provides a ministry that even frail and homebound people can do.
Walter explains that the more healing prisoners experience while locked up, the safer society will be at release time. "We will be sitting next to some of these people at church," she says.
The ministry is always in need of volunteers and stamps. To send postage, join the team or get more information, write to P.O. Box 808, Lyons, OR 97358.