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Kolbe House brings comfort, help to those in Cook County Jail: ‘I’m a true witness that they do help people’

Tuesday, December 31, 2019
Chicago Tribune
by Javonte Anderson

For a short time, the maximum security division in Cook County Jail felt like church.

The Rev. Pablo Perez, a Roman Catholic deacon, sat at a metal table bolted to the floor, preaching the gospel to about two dozen inmates.

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"When you receive the Lord in your life and in your hearts, he'll change and heal things that no one else could," Perez said.

Dressed in their gray jail scrubs, the detainees hovered around Perez.

They listened to his every word. Most of the men have been accused of heinous crimes, which could likely result in them spending the rest of their lives in prison if they are found guilty. And they say God’s message offers something they desperately need while they have no physical freedom —hope.

Perez works through Kolbe House, an agency of the Archdiocese of Chicago that serves incarcerated people and their families. Through ministers like Perez, Kolbe House tries to demonstrate God’s merciful love and serve all his children, even those who have committed cruel and callous crimes.

“Society (thinks of) them as monsters, because of what they’ve done or because of what they’ve been charged for,” Perez said. “But they’re human beings. They’re somebody’s sons.”

Perez is the chaplain for division 9, which holds nearly 900 inmates, according to a Cook County sheriff’s spokesman. Kolbe House was formed in the early 1980s by a group of priests, deacons and nuns who were already involved in jail ministry. The ministry was named in honor of St. Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest who was executed in the Nazi Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II and canonized as a Catholic martyr in 1982.

Kolbe House now has more than 40 people, including priests, who volunteer inside the jail. And since July 1, Kolbe House has served more than 250 people and families affected by incarceration who are not locked up, said MaryClare Birmingham, the executive director of Kolbe House.

On a recent weekday morning, when Perez entered their living quarters, he greeted the two dozen inmates one by one, with a firm handshake and eye contact.

He treats them like men, not criminals. To him, they are sinners, just like him, relying on God's grace and mercy to make it to heaven.

By forging a relationship with these men, he has helped some of them grow closer to God.

“He comes spreads the word with us,” said Paul Gomez, 42, an inmate who sees Perez once a week. “We fellowship. I just get a good sense of love and kindness from him. I’m already a believer in Christ, but he helps my faith grow strong.”

In addition to the spiritual guidance its ministers provide, Kolbe House also hosts a weekly program called “Houses of Healing,” focused on personal development and emotional healing. The program is technically a nonreligious program, but it’s a vital part of Kolbe House’s jail ministry.

Houses of Healing is designed to help detainees reflect on their past and equip them with the tools to cope with and heal from past experiences.

“You have people who are in a difficult situation who are probably facing some type of crisis in their lives,” said Mike McGillicuddy, a retired social worker and Kolbe House volunteer who runs the program. “And as they take a long, hard look in the mirror, hopefully, we give them some lessons and techniques to help them get through this and make some changes in their lives.”

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The heart of the program was on full display during a recent visit by McGillicuddy to a women’s cell block.

It was two days before Thanksgiving, and the day’s message centered on gratitude.

McGillicuddy started with the rules written on a large white sheet of paper taped to the wall.

“What’s rule number one?” he asked.

"Never, ever, give up," the group recited.

"Sometimes it's easy to feel bad because you're going through a tough time in life. However, remember, no matter how bad your situation may seem, there are tens of thousands of things to be grateful for in life."

“Amen to that,” a woman muttered.

The women then went around in a circle, listing a few things they were grateful for: family, second chances, God, health, the obstacles they have overcome.

Not only does Kolbe House provide support to the inmates while they’re in jail, but it also helps them when they get out.

“People upon release often have truly nothing, almost nothing at all to start life with,” Birmingham said. That’s why Kolbe House assists recently released inmates with clothing, food, public transportation, mental health care, employment and housing needs.

"Often families are struggling emotionally with anguish, fear, grief or shame," Birmingham said. "They can be in a lot of material need, especially when someone critical to the household is not there anymore."

Adrienne Ward, 52, an inmate, said she benefited from Kolbe House’s charity firsthand when the agency gave her family hats, gloves and coats for the winter.

“I was in a bind financially,” she said “… I’m a true witness that they do help people. They actually help people.”

Houses of Healing is one of the many programs offered to inmates at Cook County Jail.

“We want programs that would be useful in trying to reintegrate them into their community and make them viable members of their community,” Cook County Sheriff Thomas Dart said.

Back at the jail, McGillicuddy wanted to demonstrate his own gratitude for being given the opportunity to work with the women in the group by playing them a song.

He had a CD loaded in a black boombox in the corner. He pressed play, and the music filled the room.

“I was born by the river …,” Sam Cooke began to sing, in his popular 1960s song “A Change Is Gonna Come.”

Some women started humming the melody.

“It’s been a long, a long time comin’

"But I know a change gon’ come, oh yes it will,” Cooke continued to sing.

They started swaying in their seats as the song played. Some closed their eyes, tilted their heads to the ceiling, and began to sing.



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