SAN DIEGO — Do you have the “write” stuff?
A pen pal program that matches local volunteers with inmates currently has about 70 volunteers.
But it’s looking for more, according to Robert Ehnow, PhD, director of the diocesan Office for Life, Peace and Justice, which runs the program.
The requirements are simple enough: Participants are asked to make a one-year commitment, writing about one letter a month.
Though neither the inmates nor their pen pals are required to be Catholic, the program is spiritual in nature. Ehnow explained that the purpose of the letters is not simply to exchange friendly banter, but to provide “spiritual support, spiritual prayer, spiritual accompaniment.”
In his own letters to inmates, Ehnow said that he keeps this spiritual focus by sharing Bible verses, enclosing a prayer card or two, and reminding the inmate “that God loves them, that I love them, and that the faithful of San Diego love them and will continue to pray for them.”
Ehnow acknowledged that the pen pal program “isn’t for everybody,” noting that these are inmates who have received lengthy sentences in response to serious crimes.
But for those with “a heart to correspond with an inmate,” he said, there is no reason to be concerned about one’s personal safety. Pen pals often use only their first name and the first letter of their last name, and the Office for Life, Peace and Justice’s mailing address serves as their return address.
Ehnow said the program, which has been in existence for more than a decade, is ideal for those who are interested in prison ministry, but, for one reason or another, are unable to make in-person visits to local prisons.
Scott Matney has been a pen pal for almost four years with Paul, a death-row inmate at San Quentin State Prison.
For years, Matney had heard the scriptural account of the Judgment of the Nations, from the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, proclaimed at Mass. In those verses, Jesus reveals that we will be judged on how we helped those in need: “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, a stranger and you welcomed Me, naked and you clothed Me, ill and you cared for Me, in prison and you visited Me.”
Matney said he felt able “to check the box” on some of those things that Jesus mentioned, but not when it came to visiting the imprisoned. So, he decided to attend the last day of a three-day prison retreat to gain firsthand experience of prison ministry.
“I have to tell you, I was a bit intimidated,” Matney said of attending the retreat, explaining that it was his first time inside a prison.
He later found out about the pen pal program, which he saw as something he could do while he “developed the courage” to do in-person prison ministry.
Ehnow noted that the vast majority of the inmates participating in the program either have no family or are estranged from their relatives. So, letters from their pen pal might be “their only real window to the outside world.”
John Murcko, a summer intern in the Office for Life, Peace and Justice, has been involved in the effort to enlist more pen pals. He intends to be a pen pal, too.
Murcko has read and responded to letters that inmates have sent to the office; he said that some of those letters have been “pretty heartbreaking.”
He acknowledged that it’s easy for people not to care about inmates or to feel that they deserve to be where they are because of their crimes.
“But that’s not the end of the story,” he said. “They’re still human beings worthy of (the) dignity that God gave them.”
Thanks to his correspondence with Paul, Matney said he is able to empathize with those who find themselves behind bars, recognizing that “one wrong decision” might be all it takes to send someone to prison or set them on a path that leads there.
For those who haven’t yet added prison ministry to their “faith resume,” Matney encourages them to consider the pen pal program. He describes it as an excellent way to “dip your toe in the pool to see if this is something that you want to do.”
Contact Robert Ehnow at (858) 490-8375 or firstname.lastname@example.org for information about the pen pal program.