Camel's Hair and Locusts: Crucified with Christ, Twisting in the Wind

My friend, Bob Roleke, has been working in jail and prison ministry for many years.

I have done this myself for about seven years now.  After finishing a bachelor's degree in Religion in 1977, I never used it in active, paid ministry until I did a two year stint as Catholic Chaplain at the Saginaw County Jail between 2008 and 2010. I began doing this work as a volunteer in a local parish ministry to the prisons in St. Louis in 2006, and this led to the position as Catholic Chaplain in Saginaw.  Shortly after graduation from college, I met my wife and we began raising a family. I had a part-time job as a night auditor at the Travelodge during my senior year, and so I ended up pursuing a career in the hotel business rather than in ministry as I had intended. This was all well and good, and I enjoyed my career in hospitality very much. I would eventually learn that my education in religion had actually better prepared me for hotel management than for dealing with the rather specialized requirements of ministry to men in jail and prison, and to those who have been recently released.  Today I chaplain two small volunteer ministries to the incarcerated that are centered around correspondence and direct interaction with inmates, those newly released, and their families. One of the reasons I am able to do this successfully is because an older man named Bob was kind enough to take me under his wing and help me learn from his considerable experience.

My friend, Bob Roleke, is currently facing a charge of “improper contact” brought by an inmate in the Washtenaw County Jail, where he has ministered for many years. As Saginaw County Jail Catholic Chaplain, I was envious of the terrific program Bob had helped build there. And as a jail chaplain, I also did the same kind of counseling with inmates in private and unmonitored rooms that Bob did. The demand for this service always far exceeds the supply available from those who provide it, and there is a certain and obvious danger that goes with this territory. I explained this in a letter to the court presiding over Bob's case in this way:

“Along with my deep pain and heartfelt concern for my friend, learning that he has been charged according to what certainly must be scurrilous and fraudulent accusations of impropriety has also caused me a great deal of personal anguish. I have also worked one-on-one in private situations with inmates in the same way that Mr. Roleke has, and I understand the vulnerability inherent in this. I also know that there is no substitute for this approach, and that in the course of our ministry, we must exclude no one whom we believe we may be able to assist. In doing so, we fully understand the risk involved and we know, perhaps better than others, that we are dealing with individuals who are oftentimes mentally unstable, angry, and emotionally damaged and deeply hurting from past abuse, neglect, drug addictions and the various underlying causes of criminal activity. I know from my own experience that such individuals can lash out at those who are trying the most to love and care for them.  However, the reason we do this type of work is because we are called by Jesus Christ to extend to these very individuals the balm of true healing that comes only from him. Having seen the positive results of this divine healing means that I know, as Bob does, that the rewards are worth the risks.”

Now for those who have reacted to this story thus far by assuming that a man so accused must also be guilty, an attitude that is a plague on our society these days, let me state that Bob is a 75 year old retired professional man and grandfather, who does this work as his way of giving back for all of the blessings that God has bestowed upon his life. He is a gentleman as well as a kind and gentle man, with a deep faith and a longing to express it through his love for those who have ended up in much less fortunate circumstances than his. While ministry to the incarcerated requires a certain level of specialized knowledge in the criminal justice system, the institutions of incarceration, and the more secular rehabilitation programs involved, the greatest requirement to a successful ministry is simply a sincere love for, and deep compassion towards, those who find themselves in these circumstances. Those who have this love and compassion consider it a great gift from God, and find in it an ache in the heart and a longing in the soul to be fishers of men by putting out into the roughest and murkiest waters of the human condition: and, in so doing, to answer the challenge to lift from the greatest depths those fish which belong to Christ. And the reward for us is that we learn in the process that some of the most beautiful fish are in the deepest of the seas, and are to be found swimming among the bottom feeders.  Ask Bob why we do this ministry, and this is essentially what he will tell you. And so besides his work in the local county jail, he spends his summers traveling tirelessly across Michigan, Upper and Lower Peninsulas, from east to west, from north to south, visiting personally well over a hundred men in prison, and bringing to them the love of Jesus Christ and the hope of a better future through the same dedication to the Cross that guides his own life. Or at least he did until he was accused by someone whom Bob describes this way: “He is a man who has been in jail or prison for most of his life, whose father has been in prison during almost all of his son's life, whose mother is a heroin addict and had not been there for him....” In short, a lost soul who needed him and needed Jesus, and it was Bob who was there for him. And, based on this accusation, we are to believe that Bob Roleke is a man who would exploit a private counseling session with such a needy soul as this so as to sexually violate him? I think not.

In recent weeks, the news has been dominated by the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the election of Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina to the papacy in the name of Pope Francis. Much of this coverage has rightfully centered around our new Holy Father as a man of the common people and a champion of the downtrodden. One story in particularly which has garnered much attention is that of his celebration of Holy Thursday Mass at the Casal del Marmo youth prison instead of the traditional sites of either St. Peter's Basilica or the Church of St. John Lateran.

While this news touches the heart of those of us also involved in outreach to the incarcerated, it is right and just to note that our previous pontiff also demonstrated the heart of the Church for the imprisoned.  At Christmas 2011, “Pope Benedict XVI visited the Rebibbia prison located in Rome. There, he met with 300 inmates, who were allowed to address the Holy Father with questions. The Pope then gave an emotional speech, saying he prayed for the prisoners and noted that Christ was once imprisoned: “Prisoners are human beings who deserve, despite their crime, to be treated with respect and dignity. They need our attention.” [1] 

Perhaps most notable of all are the less publicized visits Pope John Paul II made to personally minister to Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who nearly took his life by assassination in 1981. It was largely through the Holy Father's efforts and requests for clemency that Ali Agca was pardoned and released from the same Rebibbia prison in 2000. [2] In Message of His Holiness John Paul II for the Jubilee in Prisons of July, 2000, the Holy Father wrote of the need “ offer to those who commit crimes a way of redeeming themselves and making a positive return to society. If all those in some way involved in the problem tried to . . . develop this line of thought, perhaps humanity as a whole could take a great step forward in creating a more serene and peaceful society.” And he indeed practiced what he preached. In November, 2000, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops cited and expanded upon the Holy Father's vision in a statement entitled, Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration: A Catholic Perspective on Crime and Criminal Justice, which states in the Introduction: “Putting more people in prison and, sadly, more people to death has not given Americans the security we seek. It is time for a new national dialogue on crime and corrections, justice and mercy, responsibility and treatment.” [3]

So while much of the secular media has sought to portray Pope Francis’s Holy Thursday gesture at Casal del Marmo as a radical breaking with past tradition, it is, to the contrary, a statement of the continuity of his papacy with those of his predecessors as regards this approach to a system of criminal justice that truly is restorative. It is an approach that seeks to address the flaws in society that have resulted in the vast growth of crime in modern times by assigning responsibility for it; it seeks to rehabilitate those who have participated in this criminal activity rather than merely punish them; it seeks to be all inclusive by restoring to health and wholeness all who are damaged by criminal activity, including the victims, their family's, and the perpetrators. This, in turn, results in the potential for the greater overall healing of the nation and larger portion of the world that has had its social fabric rent, and much of its hope for the future stolen, by a rising secularism that has questioned, betrayed and denied traditional Christian values in personal interactions, and in conscience towards immoral and illegal activities. Pope Benedict aptly named the ruling force of this rising secularism the “dictatorship of relativism,” and then saw his own papacy betrayed, and so irreparably damaged by this very attitude within the Roman Curia, that his only option became that of stepping aside for one better equipped to confront it and deal with it. And so, while the secular media attempts to spin the papacy of Pope Francis towards a Church “more in tune with the modern world,” his words and gestures in general are intended to reassure those of us who are paying attention at a deeper and more faithful level, that the battle against secularism and the rise of a dictatorship of relativism within the Vatican itself has not been abandoned by Pope Benedict, but is instead being rejoined in him. And the more specific gesture of celebrating Holy Thursday at Casal del Marmo sends the deeper message that a restorative justice which begins at home in the Vatican will continue to be extended to the world as well, and that which heals the Church also heals society.

Over the past three papacies, it is an easy matter to demonstrate the devotion of the Catholic Church to the concept of restorative justice, and, in the United States in particular, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has echoed this in no uncertain terms. However, when we translate this to the local diocesan level, the actual practice of entering into the jails and prisons to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and bring the healing and Christian counsel that both he and his Church would have us do, becomes a much more difficult matter. These are still tough economic times here in Michigan and, as throughout most of the Church in the U.S., we are also challenged to find the priests and deacons necessary to sustain the sacramental needs of our parishes, let alone the needs of our prisoners. Finding sacramental ministers to enter the prisons even periodically is a challenge, and though we are blessed with some priests and deacons who do graciously make time in their busy schedules to do this, on at least an occasional basis, there are some areas in which Catholic ministry in the jails and prisons is nearly nonexistent, and I can think of no situation in which it is truly sufficient. The harvest is truly great and the laborers truly few.

The Church, therefore, relies on laymen like Bob Roleke, myself, and others to provide much of the one-to-one counseling, spiritual direction, and loving support necessary to bring incarcerated individuals to a new life in Christ, and to assist them in correctly forming this new life in faith, while also sustaining it through the prison experience. We do this as unpaid volunteers because the reward found in bringing a man home to Jesus Christ in the Catholic Faith and then, in turn, home successfully to his family, and to a new life in the Catholic Church, cannot be measured in money. As Paul worked making tents in order to serve Christ in his Church, so I work as a janitor to do likewise, and so Bob uses his own personal resources to do the same, and this is actually a very worthwhile part of the process for us. And it sends the correct message to those to whom we minister that we aren't doing it for money but because we love them, as we love the God who provides for us and sends us to them.  The secret that Bob and I share with the other men we know who do this ministry is one that seems incongruous to those who are not called to it, and that is that the best Christian men we know are incarcerated. The gratitude to Our Lord that exists in the heart of one to whom much has been forgiven is an awesome thing to behold, and to participate in the saving grace of God by helping a man find his way to the Cross, and so find this forgiveness on his knees before Christ crucified for him, is among the greatest things one can do. It is a privilege beyond anything bought with earthly riches to be able to serve Our Lord and his Church in this way, and it makes the risk of being falsely accused by those who have yet to find Christ worthwhile because, in the end, it may be repentance of this very act that serves to bring this same individual to his knees at Calvary. And when this happens it is restorative and the world is healed just a little bit.

This is undoubtedly a very hard and trying ordeal for Bob Roleke. And, as a volunteer in this ministry, it means that Bob and those others of us who do this kind of work also bear responsibility for ourselves in all ways, including legally. Bob serves the Office of Restorative Justice for the Diocese of Lansing, but does so as an unpaid and, therefore, uncovered volunteer. He has been informed by diocesan counsel that the diocese is not responsible to defend him, and is under no obligation to help him in defending himself. And so his legal responsibilities are his own as well. Therefore, I am offering the opportunity to any of our readers who would like to help defray the costs Bob has encountered in defending himself to do so by contacting me via this post so I can put you in touch with him. He is a dedicated man but not a wealthy one, and this is a terrible burden on him and on his family.

There are, of course, deeper ramifications inherent in this situation. In a letter sent out to Bob's supporters, his attorney, Mr. James Fifelski, writes, “It is extremely unfortunate that the current threats to religious liberty in our country have now taken on the form of a false criminal charge against a dedicated minister of the Gospel in our local community.” The potential damage of false criminal charges threatens every volunteer who seeks to shine the Light of Christ into the darkness of prison, and this light is the beacon that guides many home to a new and successful life. The suspension from volunteer work of one as dedicated as Bob Roleke directly and indirectly touches literally hundreds of lives, and, in the world of jail and prison ministry, the ability to minister can be terminated based on charges alone—even false ones later proven to be so. Whether Bob is ever fully restored to ministry is a question that must be answered separately from that of having his good name and reputation restored. And so I ask you also, and even more importantly, to offer him and this situation up to God in prayer.

We see much reported these days on both the problems of poverty and those of an inadequate and unfair criminal justice system. What is often overlooked is how much these two issues are inextricably intertwined. Incarceration not only takes away the family breadwinner, but in doing so, thrusts the entire family into a deeper poverty. I was director of a ministry to the poor in Saginaw, and the names in my files were very much the same names as those I encountered in the jail. I heard the same story over and over: “I can't pay my bills because my [son, husband, brother, father, or some other significant person] is locked up in jail or prison.” I saw countless young men locked up for selling drugs on the street and for participating in all of the degrading and violent behavior that goes with belonging to the gangs that do this sort of thing, but I never once saw the drug supplier in there.

When you create a welfare state that pays its recipients a pittance to live on, in an area in which the unemployment rate exceeds that of the Great Depression, and when the only job in town available is selling drugs, then that's what many are going to do. Most folks may think the typical drug dealer drives around in a Cadillac, but he’s the devil who supplies the sucker on the street who is taking all the risks. Often he is doing so to feed not only his own addiction, but his momma, and his baby and her momma. He’s trying to fill in the gaps of an empty life that no poverty program can fill. He’s the one who goes to prison. And the simple solution of locking them all up and throwing away the key does not work. The damage this does and the community this creates is, understandably, a horror unfit for human beings to live in, because for every man arrested for this activity, there are ten waiting to step up and seize the opportunity left behind. And they’ll kill each other and innocent bystanders to get this chance because it’s all they know, and it’s all they’ve got. Many of those in better circumstances who can leave communities such as this do, and the community left behind becomes a photo study in urban blight and hopelessness. The message that places like Saginaw, Flint, and Detroit, Michigan should be sending to the rest of the nation is that if America stays on the path that it is on, this is what your city is going to look like someday. What stands between such utter devastation and new hope for communities such as these, and the young men who are sucked down into this vortex of crime, is men like Bob Roleke, who enter into the jails and prisons to bring them into the higher ways of Jesus Christ. And this does work.

When a nation that claims to be all about freedom can make the dubious boast that it has the highest per capita prison population in the world, then something is desperately wrong.  When there are those so ignorant as to believe the propaganda that this is because we have a “higher rule of law” in this country, then we are a long, long way from finding the solution. When we create a public attitude that those so convicted and imprisoned are there because they want to be, because they are more deviant and lesser persons than the rest of us, or because they are somehow undeserving of God’s grace and are, therefore, hopeless, then we no longer have a prison system but a gulag. And when the religious freedom of those who would seek to bring this grace of God into these dire circumstances is threatened and removed, then the America we thought we knew no longer exists. Welcome to the Soviet Union.

I missed my calling to be a pastor earlier in life, raised my family, and then in my older age was given the chance to participate in this ministry. As a Catholic layman, my vocation is my family. I heard God’s call to this ministry the first night I stepped out onto the yard at the St. Louis Correctional Facility. As a child, I prayed for a baby brother and received two wonderful sisters. When I married, I prayed for a son and God gave me seven beautiful daughters. And when I walked out onto that prison yard that night and saw a sea of men surrounded by razor wire, I heard His voice loudly and clearly, “Behold! Your brothers and your sons!” And that night I met a young man serving time for second degree murder who has had his life transformed in Christ, is the son I never had, and is my closest Catholic brother. God always answers prayers, though often in ways we least expect. When I left my job as a jail chaplain and charity director, it is was because He was calling me into deeper and more profound ministry to convert men in prison and bring them home in Christ. And when I prayed for help in learning how to do this as He would have me do, He sent me Bob Roleke.

I am not a political person, but I will say this of politics: any policy formed sincerely in love and touched by faith in God will be successful and any lacking this will not. What God calls us to do for men in prison is not lock them up and throw away the key. He calls us to fix them and deliver them from sin. And it is not we who do so, but Jesus Christ and he alone. But for Christ to touch hearts and save souls, and, in doing so, turn their earthly circumstances around, these hearts must first be opened to him in love. And when a man like Bob Roleke, who is the best at I know at opening these hearts, embraces a lost soul in the love of Christ and is then accused of “improper contact” for doing so, then it is not just his loss but that of all who also do this work, those who so desperately need this ministry, and society as a whole. And if the politics of “correctness,” the secularism of the courts, and the dictatorship of relativism that rules our land today allow this to stand and prohibit him from ministry in the future, then religious freedom is dead and what we have believed America to be is lost as well.

When the Church responds to this by essentially saying that a volunteer is not our employee and, therefore, not our problem, then we are seeing a total disconnect with what we are taught by Rome and our American bishops. Symbolic gestures such as a papal Mass in a youth prison are very nice, but it means nothing if the Church at the local level turns her back on someone, like Bob, who is guilty of nothing more than getting down in the trenches and doing the work that isn't being done by those who draw a paycheck and have the benefit of legal protection. And if the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops can issue a statement on ministry to those hurt by crime as beautiful and truthful as Responsibility, Rehabilitation, and Restoration, while the local diocese ignores the need for justice for one of their own volunteers for living this and doing it, then it is, sadly, not worth the paper upon which it is printed.

Thanks to Bob Roleke, I also work as an outreach volunteer for the Diocese of Lansing, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. As my brother in Christ and in ministry to the incarcerated, I stand in solidarity with him and offer him my support. My hope and my prayer is that the Church he loves and so selflessly serves will do likewise. While it is a tribute to Bob’s dedication and commitment to this ministry that, to use Paul's phrase, he now finds himself “crucified with Christ” because of it, his status as an unpaid volunteer should not give the Catholic Church license to claim no responsibility to him, and leave him twisting in the wind, simply because they can legally claim the right to do so.

And, indeed, who should know this better?

Phil Ropp

Phil Ropp owns the news portal Radio New Jerusalem