Perspective: The light of Christ shines in our jails and prisons


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By Robert Ehnow, PhD

I was released from federal prison in 2015 after two and half years in custody. I left prison with little hope for any kind of meaningful professional future. I was most fortunate to be re-admitted into a PhD program at the University of San Diego upon my release.

My doctoral research centered on restorative justice and prisoner reentry and reintegration. My incarcerated experience gave me an informed perspective into the challenges and often the tragedies experienced by those who are locked up and invisible to most of the rest of the population in our country.

I completed my graduate work in 2018, and I was blessed to be hired by the Diocese of San Diego to manage and resource the diocese’s prison and jail ministry programs. Today, I am the director for the Office for Life, Peace and Justice at the diocese.

The office seeks to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ through education, advocacy, and support for marginalized individuals and communities throughout the diocese. The office’s mission is centered on Catholic social teaching’s recognition of human dignity and the sanctity of life for all persons from conception to natural death, welcoming the immigrant and caring for the prisoner. The office supports and provides resources to parishes to build upon their own social ministry programs.

Much of my day-to-day work is focused on managing and supporting the Catholic religious programming and services in the 25 jails, prisons and detention centers in San Diego and Imperial counties.

With a team of more than 20 chaplains and more than 400 volunteers, the diocese brings the Gospel and the “face of Christ” to the 26,000 men and women currently incarcerated within the diocesan boundaries.

Our incarcerated Catholic population collectively is the largest parish in our diocese! Our ministry also includes a vibrant inmate pen pal program. We are building our capacity with several local nonprofits to create a reentry ministry for our returning citizens.

Prison and jail ministry, of which I was a recipient from 2013 to 2015, is a profound experience for those who are called to join in this unique work. Most volunteers begin in prison ministry believing they will be saving wayward souls and bringing the Gospel to the darkest place — prison. The volunteers in our ministry are most surprised that they often encounter Christ in the men and the women they meet inside the jail and prison walls.

As many chaplains and volunteers have shared with me, they receive far more from the inmates and detainees than they are ever able to give in return. Jesus has a unique way of reaching each of us, and it has been my own experience that His Light shines brightly in many of the men and women who have had the misfortune of being incarcerated.

God is good — all the time!

Robert Ehnow, PhD, is the director of the Office for Life, Peace and Justice. In addition to his work at the diocese, Dr. Ehnow is an adjunct faculty member at San Diego State University’s School of Public Affairs and Santa Clara University’s School of Arts and Sciences.

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