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Ministry Mission: When vets are prisoners

“… I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

—Matthew 25:36—


Captain Frenie Antoine and Lieutenant Charmaine Romano are not veterans of the U.S. military and they’ve never served jail time.

On the surface, the single women officers from the Blue Point, N.Y., Corps, would seem an unlikely duo to take the gospel into a county jail and minister to men, but God has blessed their willingness to help these U.S. war veterans, who happen to be inmates, prepare themselves to reenter society.

“We knew nothing about veterans before we started,” Antoine says. “We’re just a couple of single ladies.”

These women regularly go into the Yaphank Correctional Facility on Long Island, N.Y., and minister to veteran inmates who are about to return to society. The program is so successful, officials there want them to minister to both women inmates and men older than 55.

Antoine and Romano teach inmates the biblical story of Joseph, who also spent time in jail. The inmates read the Bible and memorize Scripture. In the process, they find hope in a Christ who overcame the world.

“Often times those imprisoned feel forgotten, ignored or simply nonexistent,” says Romano. “We wanted to go in there and tell them they are not forgotten and ‘We are here for you.’ We wanted to provide some spiritual guidance and some encouragement as well. Although we didn’t start this ministry, we wanted to see it through.”

Community partners

Two years ago, Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay asked The Salvation Army to be a part of Sheriff Vincent DeMarco’s Veterans Re–entry Program. It was a perfect fit, since The Salvation Army had managed the Northport Veterans Residence on Long Island for 18 years.

DeMarco created a jail pod specifically for veterans at the Yaphank Correctional Facility.

“The idea was that having this pod and putting the veterans together would allow for camaraderie and help the veterans through this difficult time, as well as later on, to reduce recidivism,” says Susan Park, former senior project manager for the Greater New York Division’s Social Services Department.

Park said the division saw the program as a “great opportunity to begin a relationship with a new generation of veterans.”

New challenge

Captains Felix and Irna Padilla were among the first officers to go into the jail, minister to inmates, and provide Bibles for them.

Last year when the Padillas retired, Antoine and Romano took over with the occasional support of Long Island–based officers Lieutenant Luis Ocasio and Major Patrick O’Gara from the Hempstead, N.Y., ARC.

Antoine, the corps officer in Blue Point, said she and Romano work with a group of about eight men and offer an optional Bible study, which has grown to include emotional and pastoral counseling.

“We’re excited because the original goal was it would be a Bible study, but it became much more,” she said.

While initially “standoffish,” the inmates warmed to Antoine and Romano when they shared details about their lives.

“They saw that we were human,” Antoine said. “That allowed them to open up.”

Antoine said the officers wondered how the inmates would take to two women, but the diverse group includes a Buddhist, an atheist, and one prisoner who believes only in a “higher power.”

The Buddhist knew nothing about the Bible or Christ before joining the study.

“Now he’s constantly reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. We’re encouraged by that,” Antoine said.

Romano said the Bible stories have focused on the story of Joseph, who spent time in prison. The inmates had a bevy of questions and the officers encouraged them to talk.

“We really toiled with it,” Romano says. “We were able to show them how Joseph came out of prison on top, as a ruler. They were able to take the story of Joseph and relate it to their own story.

“Being in the military and doing the things they did for their country that they would not have normally done has been hard on them. There are times they can’t sleep at night. They’ve been open with us.”

Romano, the assistant corps officer at Blue Point, said some of the veterans suffer from anxiety and Post–Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). She and Antoine have had to educate themselves on the condition.

“Not only are we single ladies, but we’re not veterans,” Romano said. “Not being veterans, we can’t relate to some of their issues, but we’ve still been able to make a great connection.

“It has been impactful, not only for the prisoners, but for us as well. We’ve been able to understand their world a lot more and they’ve been able to understand ours.”

Penetrating hearts

Romano said she has “been amazed at what God has done” with the veterans.

“Through this group, they’ve become friends,” she said. “In the past, they were in the prison in a small pod together, but they really didn’t speak. This group has formed a group outside of our group and they protect each other and they encourage each other. They have meals together now. They speak about the story of Joseph when we’re not there.

“It’s powerful. They see greatness in each other. I think you need that in prison. They don’t have to worry about protecting themselves from fighting with each other. They show each other the compassion Jesus Christ showed the world.”

Romano said the admonition to help the “least of these” in Matthew 25 is one of her favorite passages. She said the jail visits have stretched her spiritual life and caused her and Antoine to grow through the experience.

She noted how one inmate closed each night’s session by reading his favorite, Psalm 23. At a recent Bible study, the inmate recited the Psalm from memory.

“He did it all on his own,” she said. “Spiritually, it was incredibly uplifting. We couldn’t believe it.

“We’ve basically made the Bible alive, made it relevant, and made them see that the stories in the Bible are not just stories. We’ve given them living proof that they too can get through their circumstances and situations. It has been powerful.”

Antoine said she and Romano are not intimidated inside the jail because the men look out for them.

“There’s this sense of protection because we’ve built this relationship,” she said. “We’ve become like a little family. We’re excited. It’s been a lot more successful than we originally imagined.”

In keeping with the family spirit, the officers have also taken it upon themselves to help the families of the inmates.

“A lot of times, we’ll go visit their family because they can’t,” Antoine said.

Beyond the bars

Antoine said the families often struggle if the inmate was the primary breadwinner. The Salvation Army helps with food, utilities, school supplies, and whatever else they may need.

“We let the families know they’re not alone and then we report back and let the inmates know how their families are doing,” she said. “It helps alleviate the stress.”

Park said some families have come to the corps’ food bank and received Thanksgiving turkeys and Christmas gifts for their children.

“It’s a big piece for the veterans to get assistance because when the veterans go into jail, some of them get their VA benefits cut,” Park said. “When that happens, it has a huge impact on the family. We help them with their sustainability.

“It sounds pretty small, but it’s a huge thing for the veterans to be able to do for their families. It’s symbolic. It’s touching.”

Sometimes, the veteran inmates are quickly moved. They are transferred to prisons upstate, while others are released.

“We let them know that, when they are released, they can go to any corps near to them for help,” Park said. “The Salvation Army has such a presence across the Greater New York region and nationally that they can come to us at any time.

“We’re providing emotional and spiritual care and also helping them in their future planning and letting them know we can help them outside the jail as well.”

Park said the Greater New York Division is working to help local veterans get transportation once they are released. The division is also working with mental health officials on Long Island to get PTSD therapy for the veterans at the Yaphank Correctional Facility.

Antoine said there hasn’t been much crossover to the corps for Sunday worship because many of the released inmates are from places other than Long Island.

Go and make disciples

The Blue Point Corps is a former service extension unit and is in cramped quarters. As the church worships in a small garage, it makes sense to minister by going out to such places as the Yaphank Correctional Facility and nearby apartment complexes and senior centers.

“A lot of our ministries are on the go,” Antoine said. “We don’t really have the space. That really helped us go into the prison. It was an opportunity and something we had never done before.”

Romano agreed, saying, “In going to people, we’ve been effective. We’re excited to go. The way they’ve received not just us, but the gospel, is amazing.”

Dating back to the World War I “Donut Girls,” Park said The Salvation Army has always gone wherever and to whomever needed help—and that included veterans.

“It’s part of our mission and they are a vulnerable group,” Park said. “We have a long history of helping those who are incarcerated, as well as veterans. It’s part of our DNA. It’s part of our tradition.”

by Robert Mitchell

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