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Permanent Deacon Ministry in Action Tom Bousamra, Catholic Chaplain
Since the fall of 2003, when Bishop Patrick R. Cooney announced a formation program for laymen called to be permanent deacons, he has been promoting the ministry of these dedicated church leaders. Permanent deacons are men who are ordained by the bishop for service to the people of God within the diocese. They are committed to a life of spirituality and prayer as well as action and advocacy within their communities. Deacons, whether serving in parishes or in secular ministries, fulfill a variety of roles. They are primarily models of justice and servants of those in need. They proclaim the Good News both in word and deed through preaching, teaching, witnessing and assisting at the altar of worship. The following article was written by Deacon Tom Bousamra. He has taught language arts for 36 years at both the junior and high school levels and is currently employed at West Senior High School in Traverse City. His wife Mary Jane is also a teacher. Of his three children and their spouses, five are school teachers and the sixth is a probation officer a true helping profession family. Deacon Bousamra is currently assigned by Bishop Cooney as Catholic Chaplain at Grand Traverse County Jail. For most of my twenty-three years as a deacon, I have been the all-around parish deacon serving in many capacities youth group coordinator, high school catechist, deacon/director of Camp Sancta Maria (in Gaylord), Confirmation catechist, Baptism prep catechist, marriage prep counselor, homilist and other duties as assigned. I received the Diocesan Youth Minister of the Year award in 1989. At that time, I was helping to raise three teenagers of my own, teaching teens during the day, guiding teens in the Confirmation program, coordinating youth ministry at the parish, and directing a staff of thirty-five adolescence at summer camp with responsibility for 400-500 campers each summer. Several years earlier, while a member of Immaculate Conception parish, the pastor, associate pastor and I were rotating duties at Grand Traverse County Jail on Sunday mornings, providing Catholic Services. Within the year, I became the main Catholic minister at the jail relieving the two priests of some of their Sunday busyness. I offered to do this because I enjoyed being with the inmates on Sunday mornings, and it offered a different alternative to the steady work with young people. I also found it rewarding to come back to the jail an evening or two each week to call an occasional inmate out of his/her cell for a one-on-one discussion. On Sunday mornings my wife and I usually attend 8:00 a.m. Mass. After Mass, I take Eucharist, my guitar, a lectionary and music books, and head over to the jail facility, which usually houses between 150-175 inmates. A dozen or two people usually respond to the deputys announcement about Catholic Services and assemble in the control room area. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes for all participants to gather, since some must pass through three or four electronically operated doors before getting to the area, where they sit in a semicircle around a table. We begin with a hymn, listen to the readings of the Sunday, respond with music, homily, prayers of petition, the Lords Prayer and the handshake of peace. The Catholics in the group have an opportunity to receive Eucharist followed by some quiet prayer time and a closing hymn. When their singing is strong, I tease them with the chance to get out on tour. In the ten minutes or so after the service, I pass out cookies and a list for those wishing a personal visit, and we generally just chat. At all times, I am aware of the need to treat these people with dignity. I find Sunday mornings at the jail to be very prayerful. After framing our purpose and introducing myself, I ask for first names. From the first hymn until the last, I always find the inmates focused and prayerful. I sometimes invite them to share reflections after my homily, but they most frequently have a petition to offer during the Prayers of the Faithful. They are hungry for good news, and this fact makes them all the more ready for the gospel message. In my homilies and prayers I emphasize Gods forgiveness, the hope they can have, and the important role each has been given as a baptized Christian to build the Reign of God...yes, even in jail. They come from all walks of life students, doctors, judges, mothers, mechanics, etc. I may see someone in the pew next to me one week and in my congregation the next. It is important for the parish to pray for the brothers and sisters whose problems have temporarily exiled them from the larger community. The folks I see in the jail are most often decent people whose lives have spun out of control. The disease of drug or alcohol addiction is often the cause. Of course, there are many other issues churning within people that if not dealt with and confronted honestly can eventually get the better of them. Society deals with these, of course; and people find themselves enmeshed in the judicial process. Inmates can serve up to a year in jail, and sometimes their entire sentence is served in county jail. In my mentoring work with inmates, I try to get them to see the important work they have to do to while in jail to prepare themselves to be back again with family and friends as productive members of society. I am often surprised by what the Holy Spirit is able to accomplish in these sessions. For my part, I just listen and try to help sort through the experiences related. Most inmates who are away from relationships, family, work, etc. are painfully anxious while in jail. Their self-esteem rises just by my showing interest in them as people. If I am a good listener and able to promote candid dialogue, sometimes I have a sense that they have made a breakthrough in their thinking or awareness of their life situation. This is always very rewarding. From time to time I receive a letter from an individual who tells me how his/her life has turned around. Occasionally I see former inmates in places of business around town and they share what is currently happening in their life. From these encounters, I have come to appreciate more fully how God works in our lives through all the things that happen to us, good or bad. He is not done with any of us. We are all works in progress. Because of the limited access to the jail facility and consequent inability to involve others in this ministry, I may be among the few who are aware of the good work that the Holy Spirit does in these inmates who often strive to respond in faith while incarcerated. To many, and even to themselves, inmates lives sometimes appear to be on hold while in jail. Shame and loneliness eat away. I know that it was to just such of these that Jesus was present, preaching and healing. The harvest is great, and I am pleased to be a worker in service to the least of our brothers and sisters. Being a deacon always feels right when I am at jail. Rarely do I go away without the words There but for the grace of God go I echoing in my mind.