Written by by Mary McCusker
When Pope Francis visited Curran-Fromhold Correctional facility in Philadelphia in September 2015, he addressed the inmates, saying: “Jesus teaches us to see the world through his eyes — eyes which are not scandalized by the dust picked up along the way, but want to cleanse, heal and restore.”
Deacon Jim Hallman has that clear-eyed view as he goes about his pastoral work as the new Prison Ministry coordinator for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. Deacon Hallman sees the world behind bars as fertile ground for bringing God’s love to men and women longing to be cleansed, healed and restored.
Deacon Hallman recalls his trepidation when he was first approached to get involved with prison ministry. Though his immediate reaction was to decline, he explained, “I’m not sure what prompted me to change my mind, but I blurted out, ‘Sure, I’d love to try it.’ And, after my first visit inside the prison, as frightened as I was initially, I knew this is where I wanted to minister. The men were hungry for the Word of God, and they needed to be fed. At that moment, I knew this is where our Lord was calling me.”
Ordained a deacon on May 4, 2013, Deacon Hallman has extensive experience in prison ministry, beginning well before his ordination. He now provides coordination and resources for the clergy and volunteer laity who visit and provide pastoral and sacramental care to those incarcerated in the nine prisons located in the Camden Diocese. Deacon Hallman has also been a regular presence in many nursing homes. He is on the board for the Monroe Township Ministerium and is currently a member of the Camden Diocesan Deacon Council.
“The men and women in these prisons are suffering and paying the price for their convictions, but they are still God’s children and need and want to receive the very sacraments that we are so free to receive,” explained Deacon Hallman.
One particular inmate left a lasting impression on Hallman.
“Every week for eight months, George, a prisoner, sat in the back of the room whenever I conducted a Communion service at that prison. When it was time to receive the Blessed Sacrament, he would remain in his seat with his chin on his chest, shaking his head from side to side reflecting on where he went wrong. The rest of the inmates knew George was grieving, but felt helpless to console him. One Wednesday, a priest came to hear confessions and George hurried in first.”
Deacon Hallman continued, “After his confession, George sat in the front, not in his usual back seat, and there was a change in his demeanor. When it was time to receive the Blessed Sacrament, he came up first and there was such peace in his expression as he received Communion for the first time in a very long time. He walked to his regular seat in the back and, like a child knowing he is loved and his sins forgiven, allowed the tears to flow. ‘Jesus,’ he said, ‘stay with me.’ There is some camaraderie in prison, and several of the other inmates bowed their heads and were filling up as well. What do the men get out of our visits? They receive Jesus — Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity.”
Prison Ministry has as much an impact on Deacon Hallman as the prisoners he serves. One night following a homily he gave on the works of mercy, an inmate approached him and said, “What if there wasn’t any mercy in this world, what if nobody cared, what if you didn’t care? Who would have changed me?”
Deacon Hallman reflected on that moment with a smile, “You know the feeling you get when you finally realize you made a difference.”
Re-entry into society after an inmate has served his time can be a difficult transition. “The reward lies in the hope. I have had so many opportunities to pray for and bless those being released from prison. For some, it’s after 20, 30 or even more years that they have been incarcerated, and now there is freedom. There is happiness, but there is also fear,” he explained. “Yet, if they have been spiritually prepared, there is hope. And when I see hope walk out that door, that is the reward.”
He continued, “There is no better feeling than to realize by doing God’s work you are bringing someone closer to God himself.”
To volunteer or for more information about the Prison Ministry of Catholic Charities in the Camden Diocese, visit: http://catholiccharitiescamden.org/prison-ministry/