Lou Naglak, an Ignatian Volunteer in Philadelphia, has served prisoners at the Bucks County Prison for over 20 years. “I couldn’t have predicted this would be the next phase of my life,” he says.
“I grew up in a coal town above Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the 1930s and 1940s, I thought maybe I’d be a coal miner. The opportunity to go to the University of Scranton was amazing. After I graduated, I worked in engineering, then served in the Navy who paid for my graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. I never dreamed of that in my life. I spent a good portion of my career in naval research, engineering, in a laboratory. There’s a big contrast between my career and what I’m doing right now.”
“In 1995, our parish priest, Fr. John Davids, asked me to come help him at the prison. He served Masses there and helped people look for work once they left prison. He used his own stipend to pay for hotel rooms while they were in transition. I started helping him before I retired.”
“He died of lung cancer at the age of 51. I was very privileged to be a pallbearer with his doctor and 4 inmates. When he died, I reflected on it, and knew we couldn’t let what he’d been doing go. A group of us went into the prison with our pastor to speak to the Head of Corrections in Bucks County, who welcomed us to set up a ministry there. We wanted to work with the men and women three to six months before they were released, to create a reentry and mentoring program.”
“During this time, I went on a Jesuit retreat with Fr. Jim Conroy, IVC co-founder, and learned about IVC. I was a graduate of Scranton so the Jesuits were natural for me. I could continue my work at the Prison and be part of IVC.”
“I’ve been managing the prison ministry since then. We have 20-24 people who go in from 8 to 10 parishes. We’ve worked with upwards of 400 people. We facilitate weekly Masses, a Bible Study, Christian 12-step program, a Lifeskills program, one-on-one mentoring, and help find jobs,” he says.
“There are certain people inspired to help and give back. I think it’s giving to yourself more. The IVC is great support to
me because they’re similar people with similar spirit who want to serve and do it from a spiritual basis. A relationship with the Lord. It’s a good community for support particularly when this kind of work can be frustrating at times. I knew a lot of the books before and the Spiritual Exercises, but reflecting with one another on the readings, discussing, and applying them comes in handy. It’s helpful in any kind of ministry. Similar conditions and interrelationships happen for those working in hospice, working with the poor.”
Lou says, “It’s unfortunate that people are labeled as ‘prisoners’ when they’re really children of God like all of us, struggling with choices.”
“Our work is primarily recognizing them, listening to them, showing them that they are accepted. A ministry of presence. There are very, very sad situations. Many are brought up in families that are difficult, dysfunctional, on drugs. We accept them, tell them they have the strength with the good Lord to do it themselves. The encouragement does help. You don’t do very much. You find out the Lord is doing most of it,” he says.
“There’s a great need for this one-on-one help. People think – why aren’t they doing what others can do? Why can’t they do it themselves? But many of the prisoners have grown up with limitations, or drugs have killed their motivation. To find that passion in their heart takes transformation, a lot of motivation, assistance, and God’s help. Many lives are lost in that trap of limitation.”
“We encourage people to have the gifted, beautiful life that God has given them. Many just don’t know how. People feel limited since for their whole lives people have told them that they can’t. We do aptitude tests and people who thought they couldn’t do math can actually do algebra. They realize they have skills they didn’t know they had and some head to community college after release instead of going back to their old field.”
“Many people can’t believe that there’s a God who loves them and would give them the strength to help them and give them opportunity. They think they can only go back to where they were. Our mentoring widens their horizons, their view of life, and their awareness of other potential opportunities.”
“Over the 20-some years, I see good things and I see bad things. We are not always successful but it’s primarily not up to us, we’re helpers in the process. There are lots of support efforts going on,” he says.
“I worked with a college graduate whose extensive surgery from an accident turned into a drug addiction. He was caught attempting to rob a pharmacy, and spent time in prison. He had been a grade school teacher but with his criminal record could no longer teach. I got to know him and wrote to his judge to see if his record could be expunged so he could go back to teaching, but this was not possible. When he was released, we found him a room and he got a job in a grocery store. I hear from him very often. He has a fairly good job with benefits. They were willing to take him which isn’t always the case with employers.”
“Another person I worked with, Michael, was a contractor and had a gambling addiction. He was spending his money at casinos instead of working and ended up with $98,000 of restitution to pay. He came to our Masses and programs. One of his friends ran a produce business so when he got work release, we’d drive him from prison to the produce store. The owner of the market started driving him back and forth. One of his friends also owned a limo service. He was released 3 years ago and has been driving limousines. Occasionally we help him with rental money. We can give one month’s rent and working clothes and working shoes to people coming out. Little things like that help. We can’t do what they have to do for themselves, but when they’re responsible they can find their way.”
“And then there is Stephanie – she almost died 4 times from drug overdose. She went through RCIA, entered the church a few years ago and is working and seems to be doing pretty well.”
“You don’t really grasp what you’re doing at times. You hope that the Lord is with you. I always ask, ‘Holy Spirit, can’t you be more active?’ And then I keep going.”
“People always ask me why I am doing this all the time. I just know that I can’t stop. That I need to be there. The IVC community is a very good support to me,” Lou says.