Prison ministry leads to literary ambitions

Sandi Matts was terrified the first time the prison doors rumbled shut behind her. As she stood in the secured holding area between freedom and hundreds of men incarcerated for who-knows-what, she tried to quell her rising fear by calling on the Holy Spirit:

"Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in us the fire of your love…"

Matts, an administrative assistant in the Office of Student Affairs at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, was at the Erie County prison with a group of volunteers who were leading a four-day spiritual retreat called Metanoia.

She explains now, 15 years later, that her presence there at that time was not entirely voluntary. It was more out of a sense of obligation -- a favor returned to a kind-hearted priest who gently reminded her of a promise she made in a hospital bed a few months prior. 

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As Matts, a mother of two, lay in a hospital bed weak and suffering from a 104-degree temperature that doctors could not explain, she was visited by Monsignor James Peterson, an Erie-area Catholic priest.  Matts knew of Father Pete, as he was affectionately known, but she was puzzled as to why he was visiting her. He was not the priest at Matts’ church.

“He said, ‘I hear you need a healing,’ and he laid his hands on my head and asked my family to join hands and pray with him,” Matts said.

When he was done, he had a private talk with Matts and her husband, John, and asked them a question.

“He said, ‘When you are healed, do you promise to dedicate your life to God?’”

Matts said she would.

The next morning, her fever broke, and she was able to receive the surgery she needed.

She spent six weeks at home recovering. On the last day, there was a knock at her door. Father Pete announced that he’d come to remind her of her promise.

“He said, ‘I come to invite you to join us in prison ministry,’” Matts said. “I said, ‘No, Father, anything but that,’ and he said: ‘No is not an acceptable answer.’”

Father Pete had passion for helping the poor and marginalized, especially men struggling to recover from addiction, mental illness and criminal pasts. He founded the Maria House Project, a 90-day program that helps men in recovery make a smooth transition back into society.  Metanoia was his way of reaching those still imprisoned.

At the time, Matts didn’t share his love for the men most fear, but it wasn’t long before she did.

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One of the first prisoners she encountered was Ronnie, a large African-American man with a rugged and threatening outward appearance.

Matts soon discovered a “teddy bear” under Ronnie’s tough exterior. He was jovial, cheerful by nature, and fun to be around.

“At one point in the retreat, the men are given letters of support written by members of local churches,” Matts said. “When Ronnie received his letter, I saw him tuck it away without opening it.”

When she asked him why, he confessed that he couldn’t read.

“He said, ‘Miz Sandi, would you read it to me?’ and my heart was transformed,” Matts said. “Imagine having the courage to admit that you can’t read and the humbleness to ask a virtual stranger for help.”

Matts said all her fear of prison ministry was gone after that.

“I no longer identified these men by their crime,” she said. “Instead I recognized them as men of God. They are people, just like you and me. The mistakes they made may have been bigger, or perhaps they just got caught. Nonetheless, they all want and need what we all want or need -- someone to care about them and believe in them, someone to talk to, someone to listen to their stories without judgment.”

Matts’ personal melanoma led to decades more.

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Though Matts wouldn’t call herself religious -- “I’d say that I’m more spiritual than religious,” she said -- she and her husband became part of a team of spiritual leaders who have been guiding prisoners through four-day retreats at area correctional institutions for the past 15 years.

We asked Matts about her experiences with prison ministry and the book she is writing about her spiritual journey.

Tell us about the prison ministry work you do.

It’s a four-day spiritual retreat called Metanoia, which is a Greek word that means “change of heart.” There’s a team of 12 volunteer presenters who lead the retreats twice a year at SCI Albion. It runs from Thursday to Sunday evening and about 40 men participate in it each time. My husband John and I have been part of the team for about 15 years now.

Were you frightened the first time you went?

Definitely. I was very intimidated. But soon you realize the inmates are just people who made a mistake. Who among us hasn’t made a bad choice? Not that it’s an excuse, but some of these men really are victims of their upbringing. One man, Ronnie, grew up in a dirt-floor shack with multiple siblings. He never got past the third grade. From a very young age, his mother would wake them up in the middle of the night and send them out to steal food and other supplies. What chance did Ronnie ever really have?

How do you get prisoners to participate?

We are there as mentors and to help guide the talks, but a handful of long-term inmates pretty much run the retreat and do all the recruiting. For the lifers, Metanoia is like their family. They meet weekly after the retreat.

When they are recruiting other inmates to attend Metanoia, they tell them to come and surround themselves with positive people.  Also, participants get cookies and other desserts they otherwise never get. A lot of them come for the cookies, but as the retreat goes on, they are moved and they end up inspired by the experience.

What do they learn?

Every message, every activity, everything we do is focused on the messages of love and forgiveness. We tell them that peace can only be found through forgiveness – of themselves, of others who have hurt them. Many of them grew up without love and are amazed that strangers can show them this kind of unconditional love.

Has your experience with prison ministry changed how you feel about crime and punishment?

You learn there are two sides to every story and things are never as black and white, or right and wrong, as they might seem. I’d like to see more of a focus on rehabilitation than punishment.

Why do you enjoy prison ministry?

It's life giving. It’s the community that keeps me going. Where do I get nourished and uplifted? At SCI Albion. It’s very rewarding “work,” and it gives me hope. 

Has the experience changed you in any way? How so?

It’s helped me to recognize the good in every person. It’s there if you look for it.

At one of our Metanoias, I mentioned that I could use some prayers for my daughter, who was going through a difficult time. A year later I returned to that prison and one of the men asked about my daughter. I said she was fine and, honestly, I’d forgotten I even asked them to pray for her. But, he didn’t forget. He told me that every day that year – 365 days -- he knelt on the concrete floor of his cell for 45 minutes and prayed for my daughter – someone he didn’t even know.  That just blew me away.

Are there any other inmates who have stood out to you over the years?

Ed, who is in for life, for a murder he committed 30 years ago. It was so hard to believe he took a life because I know him to be very gentle, kind and happy. He was a model inmate. He had never once been reprimanded or been in “the hole.” He was up for commutation and everyone from the prison warden to the prison guards recommended him for commutation.

While his recommendation sat on the governor’s desk, a law was passed prohibiting commutation for those sentenced to life in prison.

The next time I visited the prison, I expected Ed to be sad, but he was as happy and upbeat as ever. I said, “Ed, how can you be so happy?” He looked at me and smiled and said, “Sandi, how can I not? Obviously, God needs me here, more than he needs me on the outside.”

Tell us about your book.

It’s titled "Listen to the Whisper" and it’s about my spiritual journey. Life is relational, so it’s full of stories about the people who have come in and out of my life and the influence they had on my journey.

I finished writing a couple weeks ago and now I’m working with an editor at Balboa Press, which is the self-publishing arm of Hay House. I hope to have it out by February, but I am actually entering a contest run by Hay House for a traditional publishing package. I have to turn in my proposal by December 15; that’s part of why I’m retiring. I need time to complete the proposal and build a platform.

Did you always want to write a book? Do you have writing experience?

No! I never planned to write a book, but I had all these great stories in my head and one day I sat down and my hands just flew over the keyboard. You know it’s something you were meant to do when it comes out that easily.

What will you miss about Behrend when you retire?

The students. There are 47 Resident Assistants who come in every day to check their mailboxes.  I love talking with them. They are such great young people. I am still in touch with some students I met the first year I worked here.

Do you ever think about how students who get in trouble could learn from the men you interact with in the prisons?

Sometimes. When students repeatedly end up in the office of student conduct, I wish I could take them to SCI Albion so they could see where breaking rules can eventually lead them.

What do you wish people knew about inmates?

That they are just people who made mistakes. But, ultimately, they are all searching for the same things that we all are – love, peace, and happiness.

What one thing could everyone do to make the world a better place?

Find out what your spiritual DNA is. Who are you? What are your gifts? Share them with the world.

Media Contacts: 

Heather Cass

Work Phone: 
814-898-6419

Publications and design coordinator

Penn State Erie, The Behrend College

Last Updated September 30, 2014