The Catholic University of America

Oct. 31, 2011

Praying in Prison

  Steve Hay photo
  Before Mass, Steve Hay speaks to inmates about Jesus Christ in the image of the Divine Mercy. 

On a clear fall evening, most of the 1,100 male inmates of a western New Mexico prison were in the exercise yard, some playing soccer. But a group of 75 chose to stay inside to confess sins, study scripture, and go to Mass.

While Cuban-born Jesuit Father Rafael Garcia heard private confessions, Steve Hay — a Catholic University M.S.W. alumnus and retired Catholic Charities social worker — directed nearby an Ignatian-styled Bible study in Spanish for the mostly Mexican nationals.

For twice illegally entering the United States, they are imprisoned at the federal detention facility a year — or longer, with a DWI or drug conviction — before they will be deported again.

That evening, the scripture readings centered on the power of angels and demons. So Hay posed questions for the men to consider about discerning good and evil.

“Is what I’m doing really positive, is it negative, is it good, is it bad? Who’s influencing me on this?”

Having time to reflect on life’s critical questions is a rare thing — perhaps especially for these men. While most are baptized, few have had the benefit of regular, thorough catechesis. And until now, they’ve spent most of their lives trying to dig out of material poverty too.

Now all they have is time. And Steve Hay doesn’t want them to waste it.

“Use this time well, to help you grow spiritually,” he urges the inmates.

So for the last three years, for two hours every other week, Hay visits the imprisoned to help them draw spiritual freedom out of confinement.

As a Catholic, Hay says he is driven to “respond to the Gospel” — particularly Christ’s admonition in St. Matthew’s 25th chapter to treat the “least ones” — the sick, hungry, thirsty, and the imprisoned — as himself.

“My belief in Jesus Christ is a motivation for me to see Christ in others and to be Christ to those who really need a hand-up and not a handout,” Hay explains.

“We’re brothers and sisters,” says Hay, “despite color, despite ethnicity, despite whether you have a proper document on you or whether you don’t.”

Hay is fueled by the grace that comes from prayer and Mass every day — joined by his wife, Palmira Perea Hay, a fellow former Catholic Charities social worker. “Prayer is a big part of our marriage,” says Hay.

And now, it is a big part of life for a number of illegal aliens behind barbed-wire — and it is transformative.
“This is the first time that they’ve thought a lot about Christ, about scripture, about the Bible, and it’s really beautiful the way that you can see some of these men just really blossoming out in their faith,” observes Hay.

This year, charitable works may be logged in Catholic University’s Cardinal Service Commitment, a service campaign marking Catholic University’s 125th anniversary. In thanksgiving for more than a century of God’s blessings at Catholic University, students, alumni, faculty, and staff are striving to perform 125,000 hours of service by next Founders Day, April 10, 2012. For more information and to log hours, visit 


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