After introducing himself as "Bishop Mike Barber, the new Catholic bishop of Oakland," the celebrant told the congregation that when Pope Francis became pope earlier this year, "the first place he went to have Mass was a jail."
Also in attendance were a choir of nine from the Catholic Community of Pleasanton, and a cadre of regular members of the detention ministry, who served as Eucharistic ministers.
Elaine Snyder, a member of the cantor ministry at Catholic Community of Pleasanton, said she came "because this is what Jesus would have us do."
"I can think of no better way to celebrate Christmas than doing this," she said.
The readings were done by two of the inmates; their effort was received with applause, as was each song.
In his homily, the bishop offered encouraging words for the congregation, telling them that God was there for them. "In the eyes of the state of California, you have a record," he said. "But not in the eyes of God." After confession, he said, "Those sins are gone forever."
"That is all made possible by what we celebrate today," he told the inmates.
He encouraged the inmates to look at those whose lives have been changed by Christ.
"Nelson Mandela lived 27 years in an island prison," he said. "When he was in prison he found Christ, embraced Christ, prayed with Christ, worshipped Christ.
"Nelson Mandela said, 'I realized I had to change myself before I could change anybody else,' before he could change his country, change apartheid. He began the process of self-transformation while he was in prison. He looked at Christ. 'If Christ could forgive those who crucified him, who tortured him, nailed him to the cross, then I will forgive those who have unjustly imprisoned me.'"
The bishop recalled Mandela's words on the day he walked out the prison gate: "If I didn't leave the bitterness and hatred behind me, I would always be in prison."
"Look at the Christian influence on that man," Bishop Barber said. "He changed the whole nation."
That influence could be felt close to home, he told the congregation. "We forgive ourselves, accept Christ's love, mercy and forgiveness," he said.
"You have the ability not only to change yourself, but you can pray for your family, you can pray for your children, you can pray for your spouse, you can pray for your parents."
This Mass was an example of that power of prayer, he said.
"When we consecrate the bread and wine and turn them into the actual body and blood of Christ, it's like you're those shepherds at Bethlehem," he said. "You're as close to Christ as they were."
"Christ is coming to you," he said. "Merry Christmas and God bless you."
At Communion, the inmates filed forward, some receiving the Eucharist, and others with heads bowed and arms crossed, to receive a blessing from the bishop or another minister.
At the end of Mass, the bishop offered one last gift. With permission from the deputy in charge, Bishop Barber stood at the back of the room and shook hands with each inmate as he left to return to his housing unit. The bishop offered each a Christmas card, a holy card with the story of the Nativity.
Visiting the incarcerated
Among them, he said, are the deacons.
Deacons and lay people are engaged in ministry at nine prisons, jails and detention facilities — for adults and juveniles — in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. The services vary by institution, from Mass to Communion service, to individual counseling and Bible study and sharing.
At Santa Rita Jail, Deacon David Cloyne's ministry addresses a group of 4,000 on any given Sunday. The Alameda County Sheriff's Department says it is the third-largest jail in California, and the fifth-largest in the nation.
Deacon Cloyne is not alone; 55 Catholics serve in this ministry, coming from as far away as Brentwood, Orinda and Manteca.
He has been involved in detention ministry for about five years. "Father Bob McCann was my mentor," he said. "When he was at St. Raymond, he was in charge of Santa Rita Jail ministry." Father McCann asked Deacon Cloyne, who was ordained in 2008, to join the ministry.
"I'm totally behind it," Deacon Cloyne said. "I know it works. Jailers know it works. Are we going to save everyone? No. Are we going to try? Yes."
"Our mission is to bring God to them, any way we can," he said.
Saturday mornings and Wednesday mornings, ministers offer the Liturgy of the Word. They bring Communion and one-on-one spiritual guidance.
Once a month, a priest will celebrate Mass. Reconciliation is offered at least once a year.
The changing nature of life at Santa Rita Jail affects the ministry. "It used to be up to a year in Santa Rita," he said, "Now we see people who have been there three years."
That familiarity can be a good thing. "Just talking to people, you see some of the changes," he said.
Some things may change; after the liturgy services and Mass are celebrated in the chapel, ministers visit the housing units.
"It may not be the same twice," he said. "A housing unit may be on lock down. Sometimes you might not be able to get into the jail, depending on the situation at the jail."
Deacon Cloyne said the ministry tries to have 10 ministers at each service. They prepare by reading, foreseeing questions and answers. "If we don't know," he said, "we get back to them later."
The Catholic ministry works alongside various other denominations to bring the good news.
When asked what the attributes are for a prison minister, Deacon Cloyne said, "A person who loves other people, and person who's a good listener, a person who wants to share God with everybody and anybody."
Flexibility helps, too. "Most of the people in county jail haven't graduated from high school," Deacon Cloyne said, "You learn to work your message to them, for them."
Sometimes that means overcoming a language barrier. "We've always been able to work it out," he said.
"The biggest joy you can have is them just talking to you," the deacon said. "The biggest thing is when they thank you for taking time out of your day helping them."
Deacon Cloyne noted that the ministers serve not just the detainees, but the guards at the jail. "We minister to each other," he said of the volunteers. "You get a lot more out of it than you put into it."
Volunteers often leave feeling as if they've been on retreat, Deacon Cloyne said. But it may take a while to get used to the process.
"You're behind five or six doors that lock behind you," he said. "Everybody's timid at first. Eventually, it feels like home."
Buzz Sherwood's ministry takes the former high school teacher to a familiar population — young people — but at the juvenile facility in San Leandro.
Sherwood has been seeking new volunteers for this ministry, people willing to give one hour a month.
Sherwood related his wife was reading the parish bulletin during a homily when she saw an announcement for volunteers to help in ministry to young people in detention.
She asked him, "Do you think you'd like to do that?"
He trained to work in detention ministry when Deacon Frank Beville ran the program. Volunteers trained at the juvenile center and at Santa Rita. An assignment in either place would have been fine with Sherwood, he said, but he asked, "Where do you need me?"
"A lot of adults weren't comfortable with teenagers," he said. "Teenagers are far more subtle. I was OK with that."
The veteran educator who taught social studies — 10th grade world history and ninth grade cultural geography — volunteers with young inmates in maximum-security settings.
"I was drawn to the maximum security," he said. "Kids who are in really serious trouble are likely to look for change in their lives."
The longevity and continuity in visiting them provides opportunities to minister. "I view it as a ministry of presence," he said of the work, which he began in 1997. "Secondly, as a ministry of transformation, giving them the tools to transform their own lives."
His work with the young people begins when their school day ends.
"You make more headway with one-on-one and small groups," he said. The small groups, ranging from 5 to 15, "can be less effective when there are too many."
He hopes to recruit priests who can be cleared to celebrate Mass at the facility
When asked about the attributes for a volunteer in this ministry, Sherwood said, "Somebody who is comfortable with youths who have done some very serious things, and not judge them.
"What they don't need is somebody telling them you're going to hell, you've done terrible things. They already know that. They don't need to be told that again."
His ministry is not just to Catholic detainees. "We're there for everybody, non-Catholics, Buddhists, Muslims."
Get on the Bus brings children to visit incarcerated parents
The buses left designated stops in San Diego, San Bernardino and Los Angeles for the Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin. The trip was sponsored by Get on the Bus, an organization that brings children to visit parents at nine state prisons. This trip was their first to a federal prison, said Hilary Carson, program director of Get on the Bus.
"We've never had such support and courtesy from a prison before," Carson said. "We'll be back."
Get on the Bus is particularly active around Mother's Day and Father's Day, Carson said, with four trips planned in May and three in June.
The process of getting the children to visit the prison begins with the incarcerated parent making an application. Get on the Bus works with the families to ensure that everything they need, such as birth certificates and documentation for the child's caregiver, is in order.
There is no charge to the families. The cost of the trip to the Dublin prison was about $20,000.
"Our program is so driven by volunteers," Carson said. "They get to know the families."
Before the buses made the stop at the prison, however, the passengers were welcomed at two nearby parishes. Although they arrived at 6:30 a.m. at St. Raymond Parish in Dublin, they found the Knights of Columbus cooking up a breakfast of pancakes and eggs. Children from the parish engaged in arts and crafts activities alongside their guests.
At St. Joan of Arc Parish in San Ramon, members of the youth group lined a path and cheered as their young guests arrived for breakfast, basketball in the gym and music.
Everyone was at the prison by 9:30 a.m. To help facilitate communication between mothers and children, volunteers set up stations, Carson said, for face painting, card making, picture taking, picture frame making and board games. Get on the Bus also provides lunch.
The visit ended at 2 p.m. "It's very hard, especially for young kids," Carson said. "It just brings it all back."
To ease the sorrow of parting, young riders were given teddy bears and letters, written before the visit, by their mothers, to comfort them on the long ride home.
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