Road trip

CSB and SJU students head to prison

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April 18, 2012

By Jill Yanish '13

Sometimes powerful moments come in small ways. For senior Aimee Hein, such a moment came in the simple act of revealing one's name.

Hein volunteers weekly at a prison. Most prisoners keep their names secret in an attempt to remain anonymous. After months of meeting with a prisoner, he told her his name.

"That was a big moment. I felt like we had built trust," Hein said.

Hein is one of 30 CSB and SJU students who volunteer at the Minnesota Correctional Facility in St. Cloud every Monday night as part of CSB and SJU's Prison Ministry Program, which is operated by the Volunteers in Service to Others (VISTO) program.

The Prison Ministry Program aims to provide prisoners an opportunity to celebrate Mass and talk with students. Student volunteers set up for Mass, greet prisoners, participate in the Mass and visit with prisoners afterward.

Brother Joseph Schneeweis, coordinator of the Prison Ministry Program, believes the program is important because prisoners are a marginalized group who are often shunned by society. Schneeweis says Bennies and Johnnies are a source of hope to the prisoners that they haven't been forgotten by society. Bennies and Johnnies are also a sign that society is willing to give them a second chance.

"You can see it in their faces — they light up when they see Johnnies and Bennies who are willing to take the time once a week to engage with them in conversation," Schneeweis said.

First-year student Chris Heitzig volunteers with the Prison Ministry Program. Heitzig plays piano during Mass at the prison. A pivotal moment for Heitzig came in a humorous form during the prayers of the faithful portion of Mass. A male prisoner said, "I want to pray for the brothers of Minnesota." At first, Heitzig found this to be comical but then realized the message.

"Everyone is brothers, and we are all one," Heitzig said.

Hein has also learned much from volunteering at the prison. She realized the importance of not defining prisoners by their crime — they're still people who need to be loved.

"I just want to show them that they haven't been forgotten," Hein said.

Another important element of the Prison Ministry Program is the chance it gives to prisoners to participate in the weekly Eucharist. The prison offers no other Mass. Six priests from Saint John's Abbey volunteer with the program and perform the Mass every Monday. Schneeweis believes that celebrating Mass with students gives prisoners a sense of the Christian community.

"It's a notion that, regardless of what they've done, they're still part of the Christian community," Schneeweis said.

The VISTO program is sponsored by Saint John's Campus Ministry. VISTO has approximately 240 students and 11 different volunteer sites. Last year, the participants had a combined volunteer service of 7,518 hours.