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Good Friday message resonates inside walls of prison

New Hampshire Sunday News

April 19. 2014 11:16PM
Father Bernie Campbell walks to the state prison entrance in Concord on Good Friday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

CONCORD - For Christians, this is the holiest day of the year, commemorating when Jesus Christ rose from the dead and appeared to his friends. It's a story of hope and redemption.

And that Easter message can be even more powerful inside the brick walls and concertina wire of the New Hampshire State Prison, say those who bring it there.

James Daly is an ordained Roman Catholic deacon with a degree in criminal justice from Saint Anselm College and a master's in theology from Notre Dame College. He took the chaplain job at the state prison nine years ago at his pastor's urging.

"It's me," he said simply. "It's where I am called to be. It's where I can have a chance to be able to do what I want to do, which is help people."

As the only full-time, paid chaplain, Daly coordinates about 800 volunteers who come to the prison for various activities, including about three dozen members of the clergy from a surprising number of religious traditions.

"I'm the chaplain for everyone, I like to say, from atheists to Zoroastrians," Daly said.

One of his volunteers is the Rev. Bernie Campbell, O.F.M., Cap. He says Mass every Sunday for about 40 inmates, and teaches a Friday class exploring the fundamentals of Catholicism.

Campbell, 78, whose voice still sings of his native Brooklyn, said it's vital to create a sense of community within these walls. "If there's anything that is conducive to evil, it's radical individualism," he said, "where you are above everything else.

"Once you feel an obligation to those around you, your behavior changes."

This morning's Easter homily will have a simple but profound theme. "Basically, I want them to understand that God loves them," Campbell said.

The celebration of the Mass and Eucharist, he said, "is a constant reminder that God has died for us only because God loves us.''

"That's very hard for them to understand. They prefer to think that God is punishing them."

One of the most powerful images from Holy Week resonates deeply for these men, Campbell said. The Gospel of Luke tells of two thieves crucified on either side of Jesus. One man taunts Jesus, but the "good thief" asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.

"Here's a guy who's done everything, or he wouldn't be hanging on the cross alongside of him," Campbell said. "And yet, at that last moment, not a priest, not a pope, not a bishop or any other, but God himself says, 'This day you will be with me in the kingdom.'

"That's powerful. That's a message of hope."

Daly isn't naive about the men he ministers to in prison. He said most of them grew up without role models and never lost their adolescent self-centeredness.

"I've got 1,500 12-year-olds, whether they're walking around in a 21-year-old body or an 81-year-old body. That's how they think."

And he said, "There is evil in this place. And there are some people here that are just evil. You sense it. You just know.

"But the good news is there's an overwhelming amount of goodness here."

The truth is that Easter is a bittersweet day for these men, Daly said. "This is one of those major celebrations in the year that reminds them, 'I'm not home. I'm not with my family.'

"So it's more of a reason to have that message of hope, that message of forgiveness," he said. "That understanding that 'I've got to do something with my life. I can't keep living this way.'"

Another volunteer is Denis Frediani of Nashua, the 65-year-old pastor of Evangelical Congregational Church in Tyngsboro, Mass. He visits the prison twice a week, counseling inmates, leading Bible study and praying with them.

He also works with former inmates as director of prison aftercare resources for Vision New England.

Frediani said the Easter message is especially powerful for prisoners. "It says to us that you are not defined by your past or your past actions," he said. "Because the message of redemption is God can redeem us from the past and give us a different future."

He's seen that redemptive power even among those society holds in greatest contempt, sex offenders, he said. He knows the statistics about recidivism in that population.

But, he said, "people that are genuinely broken, genuinely repentant and go through the program, the chances of them re-offending are profoundly small."

Frediani had his own experience of religious conversion as a young man. "When I graduated high school, I would have probably been voted most likely to be dead by the time I was 30," he said. "I had been abused physically, sexually and emotionally pretty seriously up till I was 10."

So by that age, he was already drinking and smoking.

He joined the Air Force and was about to be booted out when he met some fellow airmen on Okinawa who invited him to their church.

When the pastor spoke, he said, "It was like he peeled my heart open."

And suddenly, "I wasn't defined by my past and I wasn't a victim anymore. Redemption says I don't have to be a victim; I can actually be a child of God, which is no one's victim.

"I can be loved by the creator of the universe. That's powerful."

Now Frediani shares that message with the prisoners he visits each week.

The words Jesus spoke from his cross resonate deeply with these men, he said: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

"People who come here really do feel very much forsaken," he said. "I say Jesus was forsaken so we never have to be."

"God will never leave you," he tells them. "Don't let this place or your crime define you because God doesn't do that."

And because the story doesn't end on Good Friday.

Frediani reminds the inmates about Jesus' disciples, devastated after the crucifixion. "There'll be times when you're going to be very, very discouraged, and you'll feel like there's no hope," Frediani tells the inmates.

"That's exactly what they (Jesus' disciples) felt like on Friday, on Saturday. ... They didn't get it until late Sunday, when Jesus appeared to them."

And that's what he reminds them about their own lives: "It may be Friday. But Sunday's coming."

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