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26 Aug 2014
By Anthony Salamone
Correspondent, The Catholic Spirit
Debora Sims has nurtured a passion for prison ministry.
Years ago, her doctor would visit the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women, Union Township, to voluntarily tend to the medical needs of the female inmates. She also had a friend whose son and a daughter were in prisons; the female was in Edna Mahan with not as many resources or opportunities afforded male prisoners.
“That was my beginning of my sense for the calling,” Sims recalled in a recent interview. “But you just don’t go knock on the door of a prison. ‘Hey, I’m a white, suburban housewife, what can I do to help?’”
More recently, Sims, a member of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish, Bridgewater, has become involved in an international program that teaches inmates about alternatives to violence. In fact, that’s the program’s name: Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP).
Several years ago, she started with AVP, and she also drew in her husband, Deacon Gerard C. Sims Jr. into the program. They are trained facilitators who work with inmates to seek ways of “Transforming Power” away from hostility.
For Deacon Sims, who exercises his ministry at St. Bernard’s and recently celebrated his 25th anniversary in the diaconate, AVP was a natural extension of his earlier calling as a deputy attorney general prosecuting white collar crime.
“I got to know defendants, either as defendants or witnesses,” says Deacon Sims. “I saw the human side of them, and I thought I would have a better insight than the average person by doing something to help them.”
“When Debbie approached me about AVP, it appealed to me, too,” he said. “I felt called, and she was giving me the nudge.”
As far as anybody interviewed knew, the Sims are the only members of the diocese who participate in AVP. The diocese offers a ministry program at eight prisons throughout its four-county area, according to Father Sean G. Winters, director, diocesan Office of Prison Ministry.
Birth of AVP
The Alternatives to Violence Project started in 1975 at the Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, N.Y., when a group inmates sought ways to de-escalate the hostilities around them. Some knew of a Quaker community in the area and asked the Quakers to help them communicate this message.
Eleanor Novek, who has been New Jersey coordinator since 2009 for AVP, says the group has mushroomed throughout the United States and world. About 30 people, including 15 inmates who have been trained as facilitators, serve two New Jersey prisons.
AVP programs can also be held in schools and community settings.
“For people of faith … it resonates because it is certainly a lot of what people encounter in their teaching,” Novek said.
Even the hardest criminal, with a history of violence, can learn the program’s 12 “Transforming Power” principles to overcome aggression, such as looking for common ground and treating others with respect.
William Patterson University Professor Charley Flint, a lead facilitator who trained the Sims, is impressed with their volunteerism. “They clearly want to give back to the community,” said Flint, who has worked in prisoner advocacy for more than 40 years.
For the last several years, the Sims have attended workshops to become facilitators and worked with other prisoners, mostly at Edna Mahan, which is in Union Township, near Clinton. They have also volunteered at the Garden State Youth Correctional Facility at Yardville.
Some inmates also become empowered to serve as facilitators, making the program more influential within the prison walls, according to the Sims.
“They get so much negativity. They need to know and have someone believe that they are more than their crime,” said Debora Sims.
“How can any of us hope, if everyone is putting you down and tearing you down?” she asks. “That’s why this program is so positive; women respond to it. They really appreciate that they are not being preached to and told what to do.”
Deacon Sims adds the program affirms inmates with capabilities for moving on more positively with their lives.
The couple, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in August, have been members of St. Bernard of Clairvaux Parish since 1981.
God in Everyone
Besides Father Winters, others who are actively involved in the diocese’s prison ministry include: Father Robert G. Gorman and three deacons: Walter Maksimik, Walter Pidgeon and Francis D’Mello; and several lay people.
When Father Michael P. Scott, the diocese’s first director of prison ministry, died in February 2012, Father Winters says he approached Bishop Paul G. Bootkoski about taking over the responsibility.
Father Winters believes the Catholic Church should have a strong presence in helping inmates.
“People in prison feel hopeless,” said Father Winters. “It’s the kind of ministry that Jesus Christ would have gotten deeply involved in.”
Though not affiliated with the Metuchen ministry, the Sims’ work in AVP carries the same passion of helping those less fortunate.
Says Deacon Sims: “This is really the core, the belief in ‘Transforming Power,’ that there is God in everyone. And that by opening yourself to his power, there is always a possibility of change.”
AVP is seeking more facilitators. For information, contact Novek at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 732-988-0998 or Deacon Sims at (908) 725-0552, ext. 805.
To reach the diocese’s Prison Ministry, call (732) 562-2457 or e-mail email@example.com.
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NOTE: This message was also published in the diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Spirit, on August 14, 2014.