By Marci Narum
Freedom is a beautiful thing. For most people, anyway. For some, after years of incarceration, it can be frightening.
Sister Kathleen Atkinson has made this observation over years of working in prison ministry at the North Dakota State Penitentiary. It also led her to start conversations about how to help people facing a return to freedom after its loss and experiencing this fear. Those conversations have resulted in Ministry on the Margins. The volunteer-based, ecumenical ministry supports individuals and families during times of transition, especially those re-entering society from prison.
Ministry on the Margins opened two years ago, in October 2013. But Sister Kathleen said she never set out to serve people in the way the ministry has unfolded—with a food pantry, family support group, coffee, weekly warm meals, and much more.
“It has been such a grass-roots effort. I am learning from the people we serve. The two phrases that have become so important to me are, ‘Thank you’ and ‘I didn’t know,’” Sister Kathleen said. “Thank you to my parents for being stable people who loved me. Thank you for the many little things that make life a blessing. Thank you that I got to grow up in Bismarck, a city I love.”
She continued, explaining what she didn’t know.
“I just didn’t know some of the ways that people were struggling. I mean I knew, but I didn’t know what it was really about. I didn’t know that a person that gets six months in prison has a mom. Many have children. I say I didn’t know because I just didn’t think of it,” Sister Kathleen explained.
The day we visited, Sister Kathleen said she had received a phone call regarding a woman whose two daughters were sentenced on drug charges.
“How often do you see two siblings busted for drugs? They are both in prison. And now a grandma has six children she’s raising, while their mothers are gone. She is on a fixed income. There is no assistance. It’s not like she automatically gets assistance payments or child support or anything. I never read the newspaper and thought about that.”
Sister Kathleen said the ministry has opened her eyes to the many stark realities a family faces when a loved one is incarcerated. It has also made her more aware of the very simple needs that become frighteningly real for those re-entering society after serving time.
“I was out at the prison yesterday. A man came up to me. I had known him as a second grader, in First Holy Communion class. He is getting out in ten days. He’s 50 years old; he was arrested at age 22. He is scared to death. He asked me, ‘Bismarck has changed, huh?’ I said, yes it’s changed.”
A lot of change can happen in 28 years in a city such as Bismarck, and in a person’s life. Sister Kathleen explained that the man’s parents have died. She doesn’t know what type of support system he will have.
“Think of the skills you’ve developed that are part of adulthood. For someone who has been institutionalized most of their young adulthood and then expected to successfully be a 50 year old in society, you’re almost like a refugee…suddenly dropped into a totally foreign world.”
Sister Kathleen continued, “He told me, ‘You know one of the things I’m scared about? I have never used a cell phone. Every little kid knows how to use a cell phone.’ I told him, we will teach you. You will do just fine.”
This is the essence of Ministry on the Margins. It began with conversations around a coffee pot. Simply listening and responding to basic human needs.
“I call it ‘The Matthew 25’—I was hungry; you fed me. That’s all. It’s very action-oriented. So that’s how we started to say it. What if we just started to respond to real needs? And we’ll deal with the structure afterward,” said Sister Kathleen.
And it is working. The ministry has grown quickly, thanks to community response. Sister Kathleen said those real needs and stark realities continue to unfold. And as she becomes more aware of them, Ministry on the Margins responds.
This sense of response to community need was instilled in Sister Kathleen at an early age. She is the second oldest of seven children. Growing up, she said her family did many things together. Theirs was never a sports, music, or academic family. She referred to it as a “groupie” family.
“Now that I look back at it, we did groups and we did projects and Mom and Dad and all seven of us were doing that,” she said.
Sister Kathleen and her siblings were all in Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and 4-H, but the family also made time to help other people. Sister Kathleen’s father, Myron Atkinson was a land developer. One of his land holdings, Tatley Meadows, was originally a large potato field.
“It was Grandma Tatley’s Potato Farm. After the harvest, we would go down as a family and go through the potatoes that were left, and fill up the station wagon.”
They knew other big families who could use a couple hundred pounds of potatoes, so the Atkinson family would make deliveries to them.
“It was never called ‘community service.’ It was just what we did on a Sunday afternoon. It was just a way of life.
“We were very creative and in fact the neighborhood was very creative. We grew up by Cathedral of the Holy Spirit on Avenue B and 1st Street. We still refer to ourselves as the Avenue B Gang.”
Sister Kathleen laughed as she shared fond memories of the “Gang,” composed of about 50 neighborhood grade-school kids. Their creativity included neighborhood circuses, (for which they would sell tickets to the neighbors), and their own Miss Neighborhood Pageant. Sister Kathleen says one year the Avenue B Gang even collected Christmas trees that had been tossed out onto the curb after the holiday.
“We gathered 80 Christmas trees and built a log cabin in our backyard.”
Sister Kathleen’s life work is focused on the people in her own backyard—the Bismarck community she loves. Faith was always central in the Atkinson family, but not imposed.
“We weren’t a strict Catholic family. We were an active Catholic family.”
So her first calling wasn’t the ministry. It was public service. The kind that took her to Washington, D.C.
In 1975, Sister Kathleen served as an intern for the state’s U.S. Senator Milt Young. She was there for five months, and she loved everything about the experience—the city, the lifestyle, and being with people of influence and change.
“But while I was out there, I was a student at Mary at the time. I found that while I was in D.C. I was enjoying the city, but yearning for the sunsets. And picturing being back home and being back at the hills south of town.”
She also discovered something else about herself: “I want to be a change maker, but I want to do it with that spiritual dimension. I want to influence laws and society. But my spiritual life is key.”
Sister Kathleen moved back home to Bismarck and the University of Mary, and after graduation she began the journey at the Annunciation Monastery. It eventually became her family and her life.
Sister Kathleen has done a variety of work since then; teaching third grade and high school students and developing programs for the University of Mary.
“That’s what I like to do, start new things, get them going, empower other people and hand it off. Then step back and watch what happens.”
So that is what she has done again, with Ministry on the Margins. As she watches it grow, Sister Kathleen has been inspired to think about writing another book. It will be her third, and she only hinted that it will be about the ministry and the people there who teach her so much.
Including what she has learned about freedom.
“I never thought that for me prison ministry would not be so much about being in prison. It’s about the lives of people when they are out.”
Minstry on the Margins continues to meet a growing need through the services it provides:
July 2014: 38 households
July 2015: 74 households
PRISON RE-ENTRY (Prison2Society/Mentors, Transitional Support, Stay Out of Jail Supper Club)
July 2014: 4 people
July 2015: 22 people
TUESDAY & WEDNESDAY MORNING COFFEE
July 2014: 6 people
July 2015: 50 people
PRISON MINISTRY (Letter Writing and Prayer, Benedictine Oblate Program, Jail & Prison Chaplaincy Volunteers, 3 weekly Bible Studies)
July 2014: 12 men
July 2015: 32 men