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Bringing Jesus to jail for 27 years

By Nancy Rosebush Schertzing | Photography by Jim Luning | April 2019

Bringing Jesus to jail for 27 years

Carol Ann says ‘God isn’t finished with me yet’

Carol Ann Wilkinson doesn’t like being told what to do. Raised in Denver with two brothers, she is the model of a Western maverick leading the way. In the 1950s, when other co-eds were studying education or nursing, Carol Ann pursued anthropology ... then dropped out to travel through Europe pursuing her own cultural studies. In the 1960s and ’70s, like other moms, she helped out at her kids’ school ... but Carol Ann invariably ended up leading the organizations where she volunteered.

In the 1980s, when her children were launched into successful lives of their own, Carol Ann started looking for the next effort that needed her leadership. Given her record of blazing her own trail, it’s not surprising that God answered her at a silent retreat.

She remembers back to that time. “I remember standing in front of the mirror thinking, ‘There is no life in my eyes.’ Everything was alright in my life. Bill and I had a great marriage. We had raised our children in the faith at St. Thomas Aquinas in East Lansing. I attended Mass every Sunday and volunteered in different ways. Still, I didn’t have a purpose.

“I realized I was letting my spiritual life retire, so I decided to go on a retreat. Even in school, I hated to be forced into learning what I didn’t want, so I chose a silent retreat at a Jesuit retreat house in Wisconsin. I didn’t know exactly what I was searching for, so shortly into my visit I began to pray, ‘Jesus, what do you want from me?’ The answer, ‘Surrender,’ came to me clearly. So I did.”

She laughs, “God’s call knocked me off my proverbial horse! Throughout the retreat, our readings centered around captives and prisoners. One of our retreat director’s sermons was about ministering to people in prisons. I discovered after our time together that he had been involved in prison ministry for years.

“This was before prison ministry was a well-established thing, but I could see that God was clearly calling me to it! He answered my prayers and pointed me squarely toward service of our incarcerated brothers and sisters. This was before the Diocese of Lansing had fully established its Prison Ministry Program, so I set out to develop my own way to serve.

“I had never been in a prison or had a loved one incarcerated. Since I didn’t know much about their lives, I depended very much on my prayer life to guide me. God led me to a parenting program called Love and Logic.

“It has a strong faith component and teaches sound life lessons beyond parenting. The Ingham County Jail agreed to let me come in as an independent volunteer to lead Love and Logic classes for the inmates. I bought the program, brought the books into the jail and began my ministry.

“As I worked with the men and women locked away from society, I could clearly see that anger management was as much a pressing issue as parenting. I searched again and found a great anger management program. Eventually, I incorporated elements of meditation and skills-building as we went along.

“Domestic violence is a common thread in this population. I don’t know many of them who haven’t experienced some form of abuse. The whole gamut is right there before your eyes, and it’s easy to see where it ends.

“Yet all I ever see is their sweetness. I have 20 men on my list and 11 women who attend session every week. I don’t always realize it, but some of the things I say might be the first time they’ve ever heard it. Phrases like ‘Take it to the cross’ or ‘God loves you’ can seem strange at first.

“We did a session on developing conscience, and I asked people to tell me their heroes. I heard Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc. But one man said, ‘When I was a kid, my hero was Al Capone.’ That exercise made him rethink the priorities he had grown up with.

“These people change as they work through these programs! I see them use Love and Logic on each other, and I feel their spirits enliven in the classroom. They have a real opportunity to change their lives there, and many take advantage of it.

“Personal change is victory over sinfulness. It gives purpose to them and to me. I’ve always felt my mission – not my ministry, but my mission – is giving them hope. But how do you get to hope with all the chaos in their lives? I don’t know how the inmates were raised or what their standards were growing up. But sharing the Scripture and a spiritual life with them once a week has opened my eyes and helped me see just how extraordinary that relationship with God is. Seeing it spread as goodness, hope, gentleness and kindness just confirms that this is what God wants me to do.

“I love the inmates and they know it. They think of me as a favorite mom, aunt or grandma. That alone is healing for them. It is a great pleasure to share God and Jesus very personally with them through my ministry.

“This is where I came alive 27 years ago! Through changes and challenges, I love being there for the people God sends to me. And I’m still going strong at 84, so what does that tell me? God isn’t finished with me yet!”

Interested in prison ministry?

Contact: Deacon Ken Preiss,

Director of the Office of Permanent Deacons of the Diocese of Lansing at

kpreiss@dioceseoflansing.org or

517.342.2451