Lois Thomas grew up Catholic and was well versed in Jesus’s teachings.
But His “what you did for them, you did for Me” discourse never really clicked with her until she stepped through the gates into a prison 23 years ago.
“Because until you put your faith into action, you’re just going through the motions,” said Mrs. Thomas, a member of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City, to about 350 people at the Missouri Catholic Conference’s 2019 Annual Assembly.
She was one of four long-time Catholic advocates, representing each of Missouri’s dioceses, who spoke during the general session at the assembly.
Mrs. Thomas is a regular visitor at the Algoa Correctional Center (ACC) and other prisons, helping with Residents Encounter Christ (REC) weekends and monthly fellowships, the Legion of Mary, and Mass.
She noted that more than 90 percent of the people behind bars “are gonna’ get out someday.”
“And when they do get out, who would you rather have them be: the same as they went in, or knowing that they are loved?”
It changes people’s lives to know that they’re loved.
“Giving your time and your smiles and sharing your faith are actions that show love,” said Mrs. Thomas.
“That’s why I do this,” she said. “That’s why we all do it.”
She emphasized that it’s important not to judge people by the labels other people put on them.
“When we hear phrases like ‘tough on crime’ or ‘big on justice,’ it’s easy to forget about the individuals who are in these groups,” she said.
She talked about having seen people start to change because of the love of Christ being shown to them.
She recalled seeing members of two rival gangs hug each other at the end of a REC retreat in a maximum-security prison.
She recalled how on another REC, she shared the story of the first time she had been called a racist epithet, by someone who she barely knew at school.
After that talk, one of the residents went back to his cell and tore up his Aryan Nation membership card.
She also has unexpectedly encountered people on the outside who have finished their sentences and are eager to tell her about the good things they’re now doing.
“They wanted to tell me because they knew I would be interested, because they had seen me and other people showing love to people in prison,” she said.
She noted that it sometimes takes time for people in prison who become active in a faith community to get their lives back on track.
What’s important is to keep encouraging them and letting them know that God still loves them, she said.
That alone helps lead some people to Christ.
“The guys who want to learn more about our Church, just because they see us come in to visit consistently,” she said.
She shared a few passages from a book the Catholic community in ACC is reading, Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelly.
“Life is messy, and we are called to put ourselves in the middle of the mess and to work to make a difference, however small,” Mr. Kelly wrote.
“Jesus invites us to take up our cross daily,” the author continued. “And some days, we are called to take up someone else’s cross also, so that he can catch his breath, have a short rest or simply have his faith in the goodness of humanity restored.”
Summoned to serve
Marian Sister Cecelia Ann Rezac, director of the Springfield Catholic schools and associate superintendent of Catholic schools for the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, said being an advocate is more than her job; it’s her calling from God.
“I strive to be Christ’s hands, His feet and His heart,” she said.
She shared some of her experiences of advocating for children from immigrant families living in poor neighborhoods, and of helping the Marian Sisters start a home for pregnant women who are in crisis.
She talked about using art and poetry to help students find their confidence.
She said she tries to set an example for “being an ordinary, everyday advocate for the poor, the unborn and those who are underserved.”
A clear roadmap
Mike Holterman, retired CEO of Catholic Charities of Kansas City-St. Joseph, spoke of social justice and serving people in need.
He said he felt honored to be able to spend his career advocating for the unborn, the homeless, people coming out of prison, veterans, and people needing affordable housing and many other issues.
“I’ve always felt that I was blessed with a tremendous opportunity to live out my faith by standing up for and serving those in need,” he said.
He defined social justice as “a concept of fair and just relations between an individual and society.”
He pointed to the Beatitudes — the phrases in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount that begin with “How blessed are...” (Matthew 5). These, said Mr. Holterman, “clearly lay out to each Catholic, regardless of age, a roadmap to advocate for those in need.”
He advised aspiring Catholic advocates to educate themselves on the important issues of the day, choose the issues they feel best suited to addressing, and find a mentor to help them find out how best to do that.
“Then, be compassionate and persistent in advocating for your issues, either as an individual or as part of a coalition,” he said.
Deacon Samuel Lee talked about his road from grassroots activism to serving as a pro-life lobbyist and founding director of Campaign Life Missouri.
“In order to do pro-life legislation right, we must not only pass laws that make abortions harder to get,” he said. “Just as important, we must pass laws that make it easier for pregnant moms and their children — born and unborn — to have hope and to thrive with our support.”
During the civil disobedience of his pro-life ministry in the 1970s, he spent hours in the university law library learning about to defend himself and his fellow advocates.
“So you could say my life for the law today as a pro-life lobbyist came about because of my disobedience to man-made law while obeying divine law, which led me to study more carefully the civil law,” he said.
All four speakers reiterated the importance of praying and cooperating with God while advancing the work of His kingdom.
“God first!” said Sr. Cecelia Ann.
“Follow Jesus’s example,” said Mr. Holterman.
“Pray each day, receive the sacraments frequently, live a balanced life and do what is expected of you within your family, your parish, your community,” said Deacon Lee.
“And let people know you care,” said Mrs. Thomas.
The state’s bishops presented each of them a special award in recognition of their work and their witness.