Opening a Door to Compassion

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“I view my finding IVC as a new beginning, opening a new door,” says Greg Howes, 46-year-old president and owner of Howes Insurance Group in Concord, Massachusetts, and Ignatian Volunteer.

“I don’t really fit the IVC model,” he continues. “I’m not retired, not over 50. I have three children, two in college. My internal compass draws me to works of service. It comes from a place of blessing. I’m financially comfortable, my business is doing well, but I was looking for something more. When I learned about IVC, I decided I could carve out time from my week to put my faith into action”

Greg has been an Ignatian Volunteer at Dismas House in New England since September. He feels his heart being moved to compassion by his ministry of presence there.

Ignatian Volunteer Greg Howes works on a building project with a resident of Dismas Family Farm.  They used hand tools to cut trees, saw them into logs, and chisel and create signs for the Worcester County Land Trust.

Ignatian Volunteer Greg Howes works on a building project with a resident of Dismas Family Farm. They used hand tools to cut trees, saw them into logs, and chisel and create signs for the Worcester County Land Trust.

“Dismas House is a residential and work program for men leaving prison. It provides a stable environment with the necessary ingredients to reintegrate people to society. The organization is based on reconciliation. It’s about society reconciling with prisoners and welcoming people back. They offer a roof, meals, and jobs doing chores to pay rent.”

“When I interviewed at Dismas House, I felt called to serve there. But I went in with a hardened heart. The men I’m working with are people I would have had low tolerance for because of the choices they made. I had a harsh approach to who they were as people. They’ve hurt society. But we’re taught forgiveness. When I got there, I got to know individual people. I’ve learned of their hurts, fears, dreams. It opens your mind. I can’t paint this group with a broad brush, but now know people individually.”

“I’ve had the most incredible experience doing something I never saw myself doing, opening my heart, and learning so much,” Greg says. “IVC has helped me live the concepts and terms of our faith which I’ve heard since CCD. Meeting people where they are, stepping outside of my comfort zone, and putting my faith into action.”

“I spend my time at Dismas House getting to know people and their challenges. I dig, plant, and work side by side with the men who live at the Dismas House farm. In the first days, there was a lot of silence. It was a blessing to spend hours in silence doing hard work. The men were as curious about me as I was about them. They finally pulled me aside and asked what I was doing there, what was my objective? I explained that I don’t have any objective and that I was just there to be present with them. It was hard to explain because I’ve never done this. They came to realize that I was willing to work just as hard as they do, and we began to develop a rapport.”

“The men are open. It reminds me of why my heart may have been hardened. They share stories of bad choices. It can make me angry or frustrated, especially when stories involve children. It’s part of my faith journey because now I feel anger and frustration, but also compassion where before there was only disgust.”

“There’s one gentleman at the farm who is always alone. He never spoke and wouldn’t engage with the other men. I learned from a staff person that he’s had a horrific life – abuse as a child, bouncing from this institution to that institution, substance abuse, and prison. I address him every morning and he wouldn’t say anything. Then all of a sudden one day he was smiling when he saw me. After a while, a conversation took place. Then yesterday, he turned and reached out his hand to me. In the simple act of shaking hands and looking each other in the eye, we had a profoundly human interaction. It was a very powerful gesture.”

Dismas House’s Co-Director, Colleen Hilferty says, “Greg’s service at the Dismas Family Farm has had a positive impact on the Dismas community. Greg has jumped right in, working side-by-side with the residents, chopping wood, harvesting vegetables, and mucking out sheep stalls.  It has been during these moments that connections have been made and relationships formed. The residents have opened up to Greg about their life experiences and struggles, and Greg has offered understanding, hope and friendship.”

“My heart is in this pastoral work,” Greg says.  “It’s so foreign to me and I have a hard time relating to it. It’s about emotional connections, but there’s no practical feedback to know if it’s important or effective. But it feels right. I have the strong sense that it’s important that I’m there. I’m not solving anything, fixing anything, but it’s valuable.”

“Two days a week, I drive an hour to a farm and work next to prisoners. It allows me just to be there for others. This sounds basic, but this isn’t really promoted in society, right? We’re always working on achievements.”

“My time there is as much a benefit to me as to them. It’s so foreign in the business world to just be. There’s always a metric, a bottom line, a balance sheet. I don’t have to worry about my work while I’m there. ”

“The reflection process allows me to think deeply about the intersection between faith and real life. That is the blessing I’m getting from IVC. The fruits are very personal and intangible.”

“I was a little uncomfortable at first with the idea of meeting with a spiritual reflector. Never in my life have I been open and verbal with my faith. It’s been very private. The reflection has been very powerful and I look forward to it every month. And I’ve never had this kind of prayer life before. It’s a two way conversation. I feel like I’m more open to God.”

10 Responses to “Opening a Door to Compassion”

  1. Dave Hinchen

    Thanks for sharing this story with all of us, Greg. It is very moving. Thanks for taking a risk with IVC.

    Reply
  2. Joan

    Greg,
    Thank you for writing about your work at Dismas House. Your commitment is so sincere. – Joan

    Reply
  3. Fr. Richard Deshaies, SJ

    Dear Greg: How wonderfully you describe your experience, right out of the Scriptures: “You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. In the tender compassion of our God, the Dawn from on high shall break upon us, to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace (Luke 1:76).” The church prays that everyday in the Liturgy of the Hours. Like Zechariah, but at an earlier age (!), you are being given a special divine vision of what these former prisoners can be and do with God’s grace and forgiveness. God is revealing to you how God sees these men, not how God ought to see them based on our biased perspective. As I have discovered in my own life, it’s not what I do and have done for Christ that matters, it’s what Christ has done for me, at his initiative, often unasked for and unsought, until I realize that he has come to me FIRST! All these experiences you and I and others have with former prisoners basically “set the record straight”: that God is in charge “of mice and men,” that Christ came, not to condemn but to save. That’s the divine corrective to the “bottom line,” the “balance sheet,” the “metric,” as you so well put it! What a blessing has broken into your life, so unexpectedly, so gracefully, so beautifully. I hope to meet you someday. I’ve long wanted to visit your Manger in Worcester!

    Reply
  4. Gini Parker

    Greg,
    It’s been my experience that Prison Ministry is a real heart changer. Continue to be moved and know what you are offering the men you minister to, so in need of being welcomed home again,is of incalculable value and don’t be surprised if the gifts they offer you are beyond measure as well.
    Thank you for your generous IVC heart and continual blessing this service year as you bless others with hope, love and encouragement..
    Gini Parker

    Reply
  5. carol Armstrong

    Greg,

    You have certainly opened your heart, given them hope and understanding.
    Thank you for sharing your IVC experience.

    Carol

    Reply
  6. Theresa Hickey

    You’ve embarked on an incredible ministry, Greg. Having been involved in some unconventional
    service in the past, I understand that the Holy Spirit is working in your life to draw you to others, and, in turn, draw others to you. This work will refresh you in many ways–some, you’ve already experienced. This “new” way of life is far superior to prior choices you may have made, but it is those prior choices that enable you to see how fulfilling this kind of service can be. May your projects and the people you meet continue to enrich you and may you and your family (Brad and Patti are my friends) continue to receive abundant blessings. ~ Peace ~

    Reply
  7. Jim Tracy

    Greg,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. I can appreciate the personal fruits you are experiencing with the people of Dismas Farm and your reflections.

    Jim

    Reply
  8. Louise M Sandberg

    Thanks for sharing. My brother is a carpenter and brings his gift all over the world to work alongside believers and non-believers, showing them he cares, and using the time to be an instrument of cceptance and God’s love. It sounds like that is what you are doing. It sounds like you didn’t need to impose your judgement on them, and the conversion we all long for is taking place. I also worked with prisoners and found it very rewarding, especially when they expected to be judged and found acceptance instead.

    Reply
  9. Mary Beth O'Sullivan

    Thanks so much for your honesty and sharing your experiences. It is often difficult to find words that reflect what we feel.
    Mary Beth

    Reply
  10. John Butler

    Wonderful story. I am sure that your time with IVC has opened your heart,as it has mine.
    All the best.

    Reply

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