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Dismas: A Journey of Forgiveness

March 28th, 2014by Mary Anne Bressler

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The only place I felt forgiven was in the Catholic church. The individual who expressed this sentiment is a convicted felon, a young man who served time and has continued to serve time through the seemingly never-ending punishments meted out by society after the door closes behind you on the way out of prison.

I didn’t know much about returning citizens until three years ago when I joined a task force of Advocate for Justice, the Archdiocesan Social Action Collaborative. So often when we speak of the criminal justice system, we speak in terms of statistics and generalities. When I began to attend the task force meetings, I began to hear voices. I met Nate and James and Dominic and Reno. I met their young children. I met Brother Mike, who was challenged to “do something” about the young men hanging on street corners in Over the Rhine.

What Bro. Mike found out, and I and the other task force members learned, was that for many young men, one mistake can last for life. (There are serious racial implications in this story, but it would take far too many words to delve into that.) When we think felons, I imagine many of us think of murder or robbery or some kind of violent crime. We think of career criminals. Do you think of a young man who was convinced by someone else to write back checks, not understanding that it was a crime? Do you think of a young man who freely admits to making bad choices but who wants to turn his life around so that he can raise his children in a safe and nurturing environment?

Do we realize the roadblocks faced by these young men, barriers that can make committing more crimes seem the only option because employment is nearly unattainable? Until about a year ago, Ohio had 850 collateral sanctions that prevented persons with a felony record from obtaining many types of employment. Writing bad checks could keep you from becoming a registered nursing assistant or a school janitor. The nature of the crime had little to do with the kind of employment you could never have. The employment challenges are simply one of many, some legal and some societal.

When Brother Mike came to understand the barriers that returning citizens face, he began to do something about it. And the HELP Program was born. Over the past three years, I have heard the stories of several other men. These guys are incredibly bright and articulate. They are also passionate about changing the system. And so they have visited Catholic churches around Cincinnati, telling their story and inspiring parishioners to stand with them.

It was from these events—the Dismas Journey—that Dominic experienced forgiveness, which sadly seems to be in short supply in our world. It is certainly not a Gospel value to consider people beyond redemption and cast them out of society.  Jesus made it his business to welcome the outcast back into community and relationship, but I’m not sure Catholics always have the reputation of embracing that part of the gospel message. How many of us can say we forgive those who trespass against us?

It fills me with joy and hope to know that if we move past the news stories and the grim statistics and look at the faces of our brothers and sisters, hear their stories, establish relationships, we are moved to solidarity—and  to action. As we approach Lent and begin to focus on our own brokenness and on God’s inexhaustible supply of forgiveness, we might want to take a careful look at the ways in which we fail to offer the forgiveness that we would wish to receive. We could look past the news and the statistics to find the people. We could practice forgiveness in our daily lives and advocate for reconciliation in the world around us.

Mary Anne Bressler

Mary Anne Bressler is a parishioner and Pastoral Associate at St. Anthony Church in Madisonville and an adjunct faculty member at Xavier University.