In "Camerado, I Give You My Hand," readers gain the acquaintance of a visionary law school dean, a prison minister transforming inmates' lives, a man striving against the odds to provide shelter for the homeless, and a husband, father and grandfather who, a few years after his much loved wife died, became a Catholic priest.
Is this a book, then, about four people? No, it is about one man, David Link, dean emeritus of the University of Notre Dame's Law School. Prisoners at Indiana State Prison in Michigan City know him as Father Link or "brother."
Surely, to simplify her writer's life, Maura Poston Zagrans might have chosen less complex subjects than Father Link. Surely, too, readers will welcome her decision to write this admiring volume about a man she found inspiring -- someone likely to inspire others too.
"Father Dave's work can best be described as the construction of bridges by which those who are huddled at the suffering end of life are able to step across the divide," Zagrans writes.
His "camerados" -- individuals described as "more than friends but less than dependents" -- are people who, aided by the "mortar of friendship and compassion," are enabled "to strike out on better, truer, more purposeful life paths."
Father Link learned "that simple human connection often resuscitates hope in those who have given up" on themselves and their world. Her book, Zagrans says, is a story about one man's compassion.
I found the book timely in light of Pope Francis' continued emphasis on the importance of caring for wounded people, walking with them, accompanying them.
Zagrans had the challenging task of writing, on the one hand, about a priest and his ministry, while directing due attention to his 45-year marriage to Barbara. She inspired him in ways not to be underestimated. He tells Zagrans:
"Barbara made me realize that I had the power to make a difference. I learned from her that I could do something about the poor. The homeless. The prisoners. She gave me a whole new perspective on how to teach law."
Even today, Father Link thinks of Barbara as "an inspirational guide from her new vantage point."
Father Link spent 30 years in the academic world, where his lifelong inclination to serve others came into clear view. A former student said this law professor "wasn't just teaching us stuff so that we could learn it. He was teaching it to us so that we could help solve problems."
As law school dean, Link approached "the law as a healing profession." This philosophy, Zagrans reports, "set Notre Dame apart from other law schools" and became "the framework by which Notre Dame educated cutting-edge, effective, ethical attorneys."
The great demands of a law school occupied Link during the day. But evenings often found him putting his energies and imagination to work with equal vigor in the larger community. Who would have thought that his idea to purchase a dilapidated building "and turn it into a state-of-the-art homeless center" could succeed?
"Dave had a vision of a transformative experience for the homeless that would resolve the core problem of isolation that this population faces," Zagrans explains. Ultimately, the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Ind., gave concrete form to that vision.
Providing a roof over their heads for homeless people was an obvious goal of the center. But "helping people break the cycle of homelessness" was a central concern too.
"Camerado, I Give You My Hand" tells many stories about the multifaceted ways David Link has served wounded people. Father Link's prison ministry, however, forms the book's core.
"His work with the homeless of South Bend served as an apprenticeship for his prison ministry," Zagrans comments. In Father Link many prisoners meet the first person to ever believe in them or speak with them about their personal destiny and worth.
Zagrans tells of a prisoner who credits Father Link "with helping him grow up, be a man and put his life into perspective." Another said: "He has helped me to have confidence in myself. We've developed a connection. I share everything with him."
Yet another prisoner explained that "this is not a job" for Father Link. "It's a calling. He really cares about us."
Not surprisingly, Father Link possesses strong convictions about the prison system. His detailed "Crime Peace Plan," included in Zagrans' book, calls for changing "the system from punishment to healing."
He envisions jails and prisons "concerned with the diagnosis of and treatment for the social illnesses that have brought each person to incarceration."
Father Link believes the men he works with at the prison are not there "because they fell into the cracks of society." Instead, "these people were born in the cracks."
He regards them not as inmates but residents. "They are not felons; they are former felons." He calls them "brothers."