Anne Steinemann grew up in the Clairemont neighborhood of San Diego and is now a university Engineering professor in Australia. Jimmy Kelley grew up in Yucca Valley and has been on death row at San Quentin State Prison for 13 years.
They have been corresponding and talking on the phone every week for the past 10 years, as part of the pen pal program organized by the diocese’s Office for Life, Peace and Justice.
Their friendship has grown to a larger ministry within the prison walls. Kelley lets her know of inmates on death row who might need food or clothing. She arranges for packages to be sent to them from her home in Townsville, a city on Australia’s northeastern coast.
Kelley, who is 55 years old, explained that the packages offer an invaluable opportunity.
“When I come along, and offer someone in need a package, they wonder, ‘What’s the catch? What do you want out of it?’ and I say, ‘I don’t want anything; this is from God through Anne. She wants you to know that you are loved, and that you are not forgotten,’” he recalled in one of their conversations. “It blows them away. And that gives me an opportunity to witness. I have someone who is more receptive.”
He talks with each man about the love of God and Jesus Christ, as well as his own journey of faith and conversion.
She said that Kelley is able to connect with these men.
“He has street credibility,” she said. “He was the toughest of the tough, and he got off that path of violence and onto the path of peace.”
Kelley added, “I wish you could see how Anne has touched these men and warmed their hearts, even the hardest men.”
This ministry has borne fruit.
“I have guys that keep coming back to talk with me about God,” he said. “They hear the Gospel message, it ignites their faith, and they yearn for more. They thirst for the knowledge of God. And they want to know how to get right with God.”
He said he sees these men talking with other men about God.
“We pray together,” he said. “I have started a Bible study among the men. Even men who said they didn’t believe in God have started to pray.”
He said the men call Steinemann the “angel of death row.”
“They are really touched by her unconditional love for everyone, and how she loves us all, equally, without any barriers.”
Steinemann said she’s really the beneficiary of this ministry.
“I’m honored and humbled, and blessed by these men,” she said. “They are children of God; they are my brothers. I see their beautiful souls.”
“What greater gift than to think that you have helped someone, brought God’s love to them, and made them happy, even in some small way?” she said.
“And it’s so easy. Just a few encouraging words, or a candy bar, can give someone hope and make them feel loved.”
She said that she has learned much from Kelley and the other inmates.
“I’m always amazed how Jimmy gets through each day. He is a great testimony to faith.”
She urges people to get involved in detention ministry programs at the diocese, such as prison and jail ministry, restorative justice, and prisoner re-entry.
“Be a light in their world. Do whatever you feel called to do. You can change someone’s life – and your life – for the better.”
She recalled the saying, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
“I would like to think that ‘an outstretched hand for an eye makes the whole world kind’ — and able to see the power of compassion, the message of Jesus Christ in action, and the goodness of God.”
For more information on the diocese’s pen-pal program, please email Alyssa Castillo at Corpus Christi Parish at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Anne Steinemann wrote this story in collaboration with Jimmy Kelley, an inmate at San Quentin State Prison, who spoke to her by phone. She submitted the story to The Southern Cross.