By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
CORALVILLE — Bishop Thomas Zinkula enters the visiting room of the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC) where a small group is huddled in a corner, reciting the rosary before Mass. This is the bishop’s inaugural visit to IMCC, the first stop for all male offenders sentenced to serve a prison sentence in Iowa.
Prison ministry volunteers Barry Buschelman and Jenan Ellis from St. Thomas More Parish in Coralville and their pastor, Father Chuck Adam, are also present to celebrate evening Mass at IMCC.
An offender named Shay arrives in the visiting room, pushing a mobile music cart with keyboard and guitars on board. He’s the worship team leader at IMCC. As the team sets up, Bishop Zinkula prepares the small, makeshift altar for Mass, shakes hands with several offenders and blesses a cross hanging on a chain worn by an offender named James.
The congregation of around 20 people — offenders, volunteers and a couple of prison staffers — sing the entrance song, “Morning Has Broken,” after which Bishop Zinkula explains why he has come. “I’m here because you can’t come to see me.” But the most important reason for his presence, he says, “is for me to bring the Eucharist to you.”
Earlier, the bishop attended a meeting of the Vision 20/20 Steering Committee, an initiative he is leading to revitalize the diocesan church and to inspire Catholics to go out and bring the joy of the Gospel to others. Steering committee members reported that many Catholics who attended Vision 20/20 parish listening sessions expressed uncertainty about the meaning of evangelization — and how to do it. Visiting people who are in prison is one of the ways Bishop Zinkula chooses to evangelize.
He and Fr. Adam each wear a simple white alb over their black clerics and a purple stole, representing the color for the liturgical season of Advent. The bishop also wears a zucchetto (ecclesial skullcap), pectoral cross and pastoral ring — the only visible symbols of his position as a bishop.
Fr. Adam proclaims the Gospel for the first Sunday of Advent. Later, he says, “I celebrate Mass once a month at IMCC, but we have parishioners at St. Thomas More who go every week to pray with prisoners and bring Communion to those who are Catholic.
“Celebrating Mass at IMCC is a humbling experience. The men who come to Mass are prayerful and engaged in the liturgy. Often I am moved by the faith they display and their ability to sing and praise God, despite the crosses they carry of confinement and separation from loved ones and remorse over errors in past decisions.
“Yet there is a common humanity that unites us. All of us have our own share of sinfulness and unworthiness in the eyes of God. And often I find that the men who come to Mass at Coralville help me to approach Christ with complete and utter humility as we celebrate Mass together.”
Bishop Zinkula’s homily focuses on Advent hope which, admittedly, is challenging in today’s world and inside a prison. But, “today’s Scripture readings help us to be hopeful.” He says that he and his brother bishops recently approved a pastoral letter on racism. In light of that letter and the day’s readings, the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa came to mind for the bishop as he prepared his homily. In South Africa, people prayed and lit candles and placed them in their windows as a sign of hope that one day the evil of apartheid would be overcome. The government deemed that a subversive act. But, ultimately, the candles and the prayers behind them caused the government to concede that apartheid was wrong and to dismantle it.
The lighting of candles during Advent is also a sign of hope. “To light an Advent candle is to say, in the face of all that suggests the contrary, that God is still alive. God is still Lord of the world, irrespective of the evening news. We all face challenges in our lives … should we throw up our hands in despair and give up? No, we should instead light a candle in the darkness, a candle which represents the light of Christ,” the bishop says.
As the cantor announces the offertory song, “Amazing Grace,” the bishop quips, “Now that’s a sign of hope!” At the end of Mass, Bishop Zinkula tells the gathering, “It’s been a pleasure being with you, celebrating Mass with you.” He thanks the musicians, including a guy playing the harmonica. “How cool is that?”
John, who served as cantor, says, “Anytime you have a bishop come visit a parish, it’s a great thing. And anytime he comes, it’s wonderful to see him watching over his flock.” John expresses a tad bit of disappointment that the bishop didn’t wear his miter at Mass. But John also appreciated the bishop’s approachability. “It seems like he’s down to earth and practical.” Other offenders echoed John.
Shawn said he felt “kind of blessed” that Bishop Zinkula had time to spare to come to the prison for Mass. The bishop “seems very simple. I was expecting somebody grandiose and he was just another person. If he wasn’t dressed up, I’d think he was one of us.”
CORALVILLE — Barry Buschelman joined the Prison Ministry team of his parish, St. Thomas More in Coralville, during a time, talent and treasure encouragement program. The team ministers to the offenders at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center (IMCC).
“After hearing a spokesperson for the ministry at my church, a seed was planted that piqued my interest. Having worked with people in a locked-down facility when I was in college, I thought that this was something that I could do.”
He said he learned soon enough that, “as in many Christian ministries, you get more out of doing something for someone than what you put into it. I began the process with the attempt to let the offenders know that not everyone on the ‘outside’ hated them for what they had done in the past. Knowing that many of them would someday be returning to society, I wanted them to know that I was their friend and could be counted on in any need that they might have, but, especially their spiritual needs.
“There are many Christian ministries at Coralville, but, knowing that I come out to serve the needs of the few Catholics in the prison has been very satisfying. But not just Catholics, we are open to anyone that has questions about Catholicism, and we have helped several people join the church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults,” Buschelman said.
“I’ve now come to realize that, the people I meet every Tuesday are my friends. They are always very appreciative of all of us being there and thank us regularly. I know that there have been times when I have come home from work on Tuesdays and felt very tired and not thrilled about going out at night. But I gather my ambition and head to Coralville out of respect for those I serve, knowing they are there expecting to see me. After saying our good-byes and leaving, I realize what a great experience that I just had with our little faith community. … I usually am singing or whistling the last song we had sung at the service as I am walking out the door of the institution.”
Other Prison Ministry team members are fellow parishioners Jenan Ellis, Nancy Wagner and the pastor, Father Church Adam, along with Deborah Kratz, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City.
Buschelman described Bishop Thomas Zinkula’s visit to the Coralville facility as a very moving experience. “I know that most of the offenders that were present felt the same,” Buschelman added.
“It was so rewarding to have Bishop Zinkula celebrate Mass at IMCC. It was wonderful to see how proud the offenders were to meet him, proud to share faith, and show how their service is attended,” Ellis said.
“As anyone who volunteers will tell you, I do this for my own reasons, because it makes me feel like I get more than I give. It is important to share my faith as part of my own faith journey. The preparation for the reflections part of the service allows me to immerse myself more in the weekly Scripture readings, and hopefully I can be a positive addition to someone else’s faith journey.”