Prisons, Ports, and Payless: Jesus visits the bayou.

David Smith casually chats and distribute pamphlets to two passersby at the “Ministry at the Mall.”

If Jesus were to visit Southern Louisiana, like we did last week, I think we’d find him showing up in some unlikely places. Thanks to some interesting ministries and innovative leaders supported by Catholic Extension throughout the bayou region, the notion that “Jesus meets people where they are” is taking on a whole new meaning.

Take for example, the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, an oasis of Catholic freebies and educational material in an ocean of frenzied shopping. Located just outside of The Limited and a Payless shoe store, the kiosk has been staffed daily since November 1st by employees of the diocese and volunteers from the Catholic community. The vision for it belongs to Bishop Sam Jacobs who tapped Nancy and Dave Smith to organize daily volunteers, telling them “If Jesus came to Houma today, he’d go straight for the mall.” Bishop Jacobs himself is a regular at the kiosk who, according to David Smith, is a natural “mall minister”.

“This is his brainchild.  He comes out about twice a week, stays an hour or so and reaches out to everybody.  It’s amazing!” he said. In fact, it was Bishop Jacobs who encouraged us to visit the kiosk. We found it to be an exciting expression of the diocese’s commitment to evangelization along the same lines of the many programs Catholic Extension supports in Houma-Thibodaux, like the committed team of Hispanic volunteers we met at Sacred Heart Church in Cut Off, ably-organized by Sister Marta Perez, M.G.Sp.S., and Fr. Jerod Duet.

David and Nancy Smith stand proudly outside the kiosk sponsored by the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux at the Southland Mall in Houma, Louisiana, where they serve as volunteers to reach out to the community.

From the mall in Houma to the prisons in Lafayette, “meeting people where they are” takes a decidedly different shape.  In the Diocese of Lafayette, Jesus is showing up in the lives of those in prison and those hurt by the imprisoned.  Through the diocese’s Prison Ministry and the Survivors of Violence Ministry which are, according to director Ed Boustany, “two bookends of the same story – [serving] the two groups of individuals that are affected by violent acts,” the Church is a compassionate presence in some of the most heart-breaking situations in people’s lives, offering counseling to violence survivors and spiritual guidance and sacramental ministry for those in jail.

“There’s something about the power of the presence of the [Blessed Sacrament] that really affects these men,” Boustany says about the prisoners he leads communion services for. “They realize that it’s going to be something beyond them that’s going to save them. It comes from faith. It comes from that surrender to God when they can’t seem to surrender to anything else. And that’s where I think we make the difference…That’s what I see leads these men to change.”

The diocese’s presence in their life doesn’t end when they get out of prison, either.  Boustany coordinates parishes’ efforts to reach out to the recently released. He says many former inmates who were accompanied by the prison ministry while in jail now serve as volunteer mentors for those who remain.  He feels blessed by the dozens of volunteers who make themselves available to share their faith often under trying conditions and with little acknowledgement.

Deacon Lapoint, center, visits with Brian Hole, left, and Neil Dews of Seattle, Washington who spend time at the Seafarer’s center while awaiting work for their tugboat docked in the Port of Lake Charles.

Making his way west from Houma, past Lafayette, Jesus would very likely end up where we did among the docks and ship yards of the Port of Lake Charles. That’s where we met Deacon Patrick Lapoint who directs the Lake Charles Seafarer’s Center on behalf of the Diocese of Lake Charles. The center is the local outpost of an international network of chaplaincies dedicated to the unique lifestyle of sailors. The needs of sailors who often spend nine months or more away from home are often simple and straightforward, remedied by the nightly shuttle to a local mall or movie theater. But sometimes, Deacon Lapoint becomes a seaman’s only advocate in the face of unjust working conditions or personal emergencies.  More often, his is the only welcoming face that greets a sailor in an unfamiliar port thousands of miles from home.

In each case, and much like the places we witnessed throughout Southern Louisiana, Deacon Lapoint is the Church in its fullest expression of Jesus’ mission: present on the side of the forgotten and too-often overlooked, patiently and lovingly accompanying those whose lives are eclipsed by the immediate demands of the tragic and the mundane, providing the sure hand of welcome and assistance on their journeys.

Boats in the port of Lake Charles.

How has the Church been present to you in a time of need? How has Jesus met you where you are?

– Frank Santoni, Regional Director of Grants

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