A Ministry of Hope

David Karas

For one prison chaplain, his job is all about hope.

Reverend Emmanuel Bourjolly is chaplain and supervisor of the religious department at the Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility, Bordentown.

“Everything they were living for is not there anymore,” he said of the inmates he works with. “This is where the Church comes in. The Church comes and instills hope in their lives.”

Rev. Bourjolly was first exposed to prison ministry during his internship at Wagner while pursuing a Master’s degree at Princeton Theological Seminary. Not long after, he was invited to begin working there as chaplain to oversee faith development and enrichment activities for the prison population.

“It is my job to serve them,” he said, explaining that no matter what recognized faith they choose to follow, he must provide an avenue for their worship. Wagner hosts mainstream faiths such as Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam, as well as less popular institutions like Wicca, which two inmates currently practice.

While many in prison pursue religious enrichment for spiritual developments, others seek protection in a gang-like atmosphere. According to Rev. Bourjolly, Islam is practiced by a majority of the inmates at Wagner, which many join to receive protection from others within the institution. The belief group functions much like a prison gang for these men.

However, this has never deterred Rev. Bourjolly, who sees the lack of hope as playing an important role in the life of those incarcerated in his institution, going back to their own upbringing.

Growing up in poor neighborhoods filled with boarded-up homes and crime, he said, contributes to an overall lack of hope in the young lives of the men he works with. “The life of kids in the city is different than the life of kids in the suburb.”

This lack of hope is only compounded while behind bars, and continues after release, that is, unless, according to Rev. Bourjolly, an inmate commits to a life of faith.

“This is the only way we can change the lives of these young men. We’re giving them something to emulate; we’re giving them a sense of responsibility,” he said, describing stories of inmates he has worked with in prison who have been able to turn their lives around after release.

He often encounters many former inmates from Wagner in the community, some who are living successful and productive lives, and others who are struggling with a sense of hopelessness.

Rev. Bourjolly also discussed the importance of strong faith institutions on the outside to continue the work of his ministers behind bars.

“Who is going to help them carry that burden?”

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~ by David on April 3, 2010.

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