Minnesota writer helps incarcerated women pen stories of hurt, hope

By Melenie Soucheray
Catholic News Service

NEW BRIGHTON, Minn. (CNS) — Five years ago, Joannie Moses was in her late 60s and widowed.

Her husband, Terry, had died of pancreatic cancer. She thought that after a long stint as a caregiver, and nearly 30 years as the religious education director at St. Maron Maronite Catholic Parish in northeast Minneapolis, it was time to reinvent her life.

“After he passed away, I met with a psychologist every single week,” Moses recalled. “(St. Maron pastor) Chorbishop Sharbel Maroun refused to accept my retirement, saying, ‘I will not accept this until you tell me what you’re going to do with your life.’

“I thought that was the smartest thing ever, because that gave me something to focus on,” said Moses, 72, who has four daughters and nine grandchildren.

In 2005, Moses and a friend visited a women’s prison three times to lead a writing group. It was the activity that kept climbing to the top of her list.

A year after graduating from the Archbishop Harry J. Flynn Catechetical Institute in 2014, Moses decided to look into the Residential Re-entry Center of Roseville, a facility operated by Volunteers of America. She asked center officials if she could start a writing group for women.

“They were delighted, and the women were delighted to do it. It’s personal writing about their past, present and future, Moses told The Catholic Spirit, newspaper of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“Many of them were introduced to Christ in prison,” she said. “They were very enthusiastic about their relationship with God and the hope that they feel for their future. (The project) started out as a writing exercise because I teach creative writing. It turned out to be personal writing and ministry. I call it ‘Heart and Soul Writing.'”

Every Wednesday evening, Moses meets with the women of the re-entry center who want to write and share their reflections in groups. From three to 14 participants join the groups.

“I’m seeing people every week who are diligently trying to re-create their lives,” she said.

Moses believes the Heart & Soul Writing program “is giving them a chance to actually talk about their hopes, their dreams, their goals, and be able to talk and to say something to someone (whom) they don’t have to make an appointment with.”

Moses sparks the activity by asking participants to write about topics that cause them to look at their past, present and future. Among the topics:

  • For what do you need extra courage?
  • Tell me about your strengths.
  • What impact would you like to have?
  • Tell me about the person who is kindest to you.

By her own reckoning, Moses has heard some heartrending stories.

“A 14-year-old girl was sold by her mother to the Hells Angels,” Moses said. “She’s now 48 and has just discovered Christianity in the last two years. She is pregnant and starting a whole new life for herself.”

Moses routinely collects handwritten stories like these, types them and returns them to the authors the next week. She tells them that writing makes their answers real, and that sharing with others in the group reinforces their stories. Eventually the women asked if their work could be put into a book so that others could learn from their experiences, mistakes and all.

The collected works of 43 women, “Breaking the Cycle: Writings by Women in Prison,” was published in April. The authors hope it will influence others to avoid criminal activity.

While curating the content, Moses did not edit the women’s words or correct punctuation and syntax, allowing each writer to speak for herself. The contributors are anonymous, but in the book they have each been assigned a different font so that readers can track a favorite writer to learn of her personal growth.

“I have a lot of material,” Moses said. “People were very upset that they (discovered they) weren’t going to be in the book.”

A second volume composed of poems and essays from more writers is in the offing.

Moses maintains her dual parish memberships at St. Maron and St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony, Minnesota, where her children attended school. She is religious education director and sanctity of life director at St. Maron. Plus, she has taken on a project that keeps her active as a friend, a published author, an educator and, in a way, a student.

“I have learned that people really do want to change the direction and pattern of their lives and that they definitely need encouragement to have a voice in their futures,” she said.