By Tom Hoffarth, Catholic News Service
LOS ANGELES (CNS) — They are known as chaplains.
They are not the priests, deacons, or women religious who typically administer sacraments to the incarcerated. Instead, they are the laymen and laywomen who make up the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Restorative Justice’s volunteer network across Southern California.
Some visit inmates in jails and prisons, while others dedicate their time to ministering to the relatives they’ve left behind. Still others offer what the program calls “help, hope and healing” to those affected by crime.
Originally known as the Detention Ministry, the office has refocused its methods since its founding almost 50 years ago, emphasizing the power of listening, accountability and transformation through a variety of self-reflection programs.
The ministry played an especially crucial role when the COVID-19 pandemic struck two years ago. Even when Los Angeles County jails suspended public visits and quarantined inmates who had been exposed to COVID-19, chaplains were allowed for individual visits, offering crucial support to a population already suffering the consequences of isolation.
Still, much of the volunteer help dropped off dramatically during the pandemic.
Those who remain dedicated have talked about finding it as a cathartic process to share a common language with those behind bars, forging a communal feeling as they work together to find Christ’s healing strength.
These are some of their stories:
Bob Slater, 72, thrived as a worker’s compensation personal injury attorney in the San Fernando Valley for nearly 50 years, a practice that saw his office handling as many as 500 cases at one point.
His wife, Clorinda, was a cradle Catholic and native of Peru who had come to the U.S. some 40 years ago to study marine biology. After raising their three children, she eventually went back to school to become a legal interpreter. They have been married for 38 years and now have two grandchildren.
Born to Jewish parents in New York but never feeling spiritually connected, Bob decided to go through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults about 25 years ago.
Then, five years ago, his faith was put to the test.
In 2017, an Orange County district attorney included Bob in a sweeping insurance fraud indictment. A felony conspiracy charge linked him with nine other lawyers in a scheme to pay for referrals, violating a section of the labor code.
“It knocked my breath out,” Bob told Angelus News, the online news outlet of the Los Angeles Archdiocese. “It was devastating.”
Bob maintains he was unaware that he was doing anything illegal. Yet in April 2021, Bob was convicted on 22 counts. Nine months later came his sentencing hearing. Character witnesses included Father Jarlath Cunnane, then the pastor at Our Lady of Grace Parish. The district attorney asked for a 10-year prison sentence. His appellate attorney asked for probation.
“I was expecting to go to prison, because I knew, as a lawyer, the DA was going to make an example out of me,” said Bob. “But somehow, it was a miracle that the judge only gave me probation.”
With that came 500 hours of community service and six months of home detention. While the case is on appeal, Bob had his license suspended. His lawyer asked the judge if Bob could begin doing community service — offering to work in the archdiocese’ Office of Restorative Justice. The judge agreed.
The Slaters knew about the office through a fellow parishioner who made annual parish donation appeals for the ministry.
“I had heard his stories and said to myself: This guy trudges off to prison with Bibles? Who does this?” said Bob. “We always feel sorry for those who are poor or homeless, but as far as prisoners — they are the ‘least of us,’ right?”
For now, Bob is not allowed to go into jails for personal visits while his case is pending. So he has begun helping to develop programs to help inmates.
Clorinda’s prison outreach, meanwhile, has begun with online training sessions and obtaining necessary clearance to begin ministering to female inmates.
Bob realizes every day how close he could have become one of the inmates that other chaplains were coming to visit.
“I still believe in our justice system,” Bob said. “I read their letters — I’m in jail for something I didn’t do. I understand that. I think of that all the time.”
Martin Baeza Martinez, 57, volunteered for 11 years as a chaplain at the Pitchess Detention Center’s North Facility in Castaic before accepting a full-time position three years ago with the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice.
A parishioner with his wife, Rosa, at St. John Eudes Church in Chatsworth, Martin emigrated from Mexico in 1984 and was navigating a successful high-level manufacturing job. Soon, he careened through alcoholism, drugs, an extramarital affair and getting laid off from his job. He avoided church.
One morning he wandered down the street from his house and saw a group of men going into the restaurant. As he approached the door, he missed a step and stumbled, so he was now down on his knees. He looked up to see the men sitting around a table.
Martin had literally stumbled into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
“I looked up and said, Lord, if this is where you are sending me, I surrender,” he said, and stayed at the meeting.
Gonzalo De Vivero, who was at that gathering, works with the archdiocesan Office of Restorative Justice. He became Martin’s AA sponsor and eventually pointed him to volunteering with the prison ministry.
“I remember I said in Spanish, ‘Esta loco!'” (“He’s crazy!”) said Martin, who had been trying to avoid jail and once had a DUI at a time he was trying to kill himself and end his pain. Soon, he was at the North County Correctional Facility, facing a ward of some of the toughest prison inmates in the state.
“I’ll tell you, I was scared at first, but when I entered, the volunteers were welcoming,” said Martin. “The more we started talking to the inmates, the more they were sharing with me my life issues. I was thinking, ‘Man, that could be me.’ I thought I could help them. They were helping me. It was a two-way street.”
Martin spoke with gratitude recounting the mended relationships with his wife, Rosa, and his two adult daughters. He has returned as the Spanish music coordinator at his parish. He and Rosa serve on the international board as Spanish-language coordinators for the marriage healing Retrouvaille program. Rosa is also involved in answering letters from inmates through the “Finding the Way in Jail” program.
Martin continues his trips four days a week to the Castaic facility with other volunteers.
He also never forgets the day when a jail deputy called out to him: “Hey, chaplain, are you having a service today? These guys are never going to change. They’re the toughest ones here.”
“He was mocking me,” said Martin.
“On the way out, he asked again: ‘Did anyone get saved, chaplain? I’ll bet nobody did.’ ”
“I was thinking about it and I finally said: ‘You know, I think one guy did.'”
“Oh yeah, tell me his name. I know everybody in that dorm. I can check and I’ll tell you.”
“I said: ‘His name is Martin.’ That one was me.”
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Hoffarth writes for Angelus News, the online news outlet of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.