COLLEGEVILLE, Pa. (BRN) — “Whatever faith group you can think of, they’re behind prison walls,” said Chaplaincy Program Director and Volunteer Coordinator at State Correctional Institution (SCI) – Phoenix Rev. Rafael Torres.
SCI – Phoenix is located in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and is the largest correctional institution in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, housing nearly 4,000 inmates.
“I do my best to understand their (inmates’) situations. A lot of them are under a lot of stress, especially those who are seeking the exoneration or commutation of their sentences.”
Torres continued: “There’s one gentleman, in particular, who really, really stresses about going through the process of commutation, because it’s been so many years since the actual incident [and] one of the criteria, or one of the things that the Commutation Board looks for, is remorse.”
Typically, many of the prisoners feel great remorse within the first few years of serving their sentence.
“After coming to terms with whatever your sentence is, a few years in it kind of dawns on you that you’re there forever and you start to think about your actions and what led you to where you are currently. They (inmates) come and they’re all remorseful; they pour out their hearts, you know, how sorry they are for what they’ve done.”
Torres paralleled this remorse to that of a new Christ follower, and the recounting of that remorse to the Commutation Board as a longtime Christian describing his or her first encounter with God’s grace.
“Just like we’re built to understand our fault and our situation, and that God has forgiven us, we tend to move on from that. When someone else asks us about that, maybe two years later, we kind of tell a story and maybe the remorse is not the same, but we’re still remorseful.”
Torres continued: “The challenge for these men is to be able to express that remorse 25, 30, [or] 40 years later. It’s kind of challenging for them to be able to emanate that to the board [and] to get a favorable outcome.”
Since April of 2007, Rev. Torres has worked day in and day out with inmates and fellow chaplains who come from various faith backgrounds and religious beliefs.
“The first few years were challenging, because now I’m dealing with faith groups that I’ve never dealt with before. So that was challenging, getting to know them as for who they are, as opposed to what their faith is, and looking at them for the man that they are – the man that they were, the man that they are, and the man that they hope to be in the future,” said Torres.
“That was a challenge at first, and then I was able to see that it’s not about the faith that we have, but about how we can communicate the love of God to them, regardless of what their faith is.”
Now, as the Chaplaincy Program Director and Volunteer Coordinator, Torres not only works one-on-one with inmates of different faith backgrounds, but also fellow chaplains.
Under Torres’ supervision are seven other chaplains, five of whom represent different faith groups – Judaism, Islam, Catholicism, Native American beliefs, and a Protestant Omnist, which is a person who believes in all faiths.
“I probably had a very narrow view of other faith groups; kind of natural, you don’t know it [and] you don’t understand it, just like they don’t know us or understand us. For me, it was the most eye-opening experience, and the most heartwarming experience, to get to know some of these faiths for what they are, but also for the men who believe in them,” said Torres.
At SCI – Phoenix there are at least 18 different faith groups that Torres works with on a daily basis.
“I had to read a lot to understand what their actual needs – as far as their faith – was so that I could supply it. How to understand if there were any similarities to my faith that I can connect with them and it did. It was the most beautiful experience, that I’m still having,” said Torres.
Through this gained knowledge of other beliefs, Torres has forged respected relationships and dear friendships with his fellow chaplains.
“I have a few men who are Muslim in my chapel, who are actually workers, [and] we’ve formed a tremendous bond. Faith is not in between us – that’s not a hedge between us – it’s an open road to one another, in speaking our faith in love and leading each other to a greater understanding of who God is,” shared Torres.
This “open road” perspective on faith, has also led to the transformation of hearts for Christ at the prison.
“We have our doors open to whatever it is that they (inmates) want to converse about, and they feel the genuineness of that and they open up to that. We’ve seen some hearts transformed for God in the Protestant faith – like jumping from one faith into the arms of Christ – and those are great moments for me.”
Torres continued: “But the totality of it is that people who were hard, who do not accept us or do not accept the work that we do, when they are there for a time and see that what we do we do it for everyone, regardless of their faith, that tends to open up their heart to get to know who we are more.”
As we enter the Christmas season, Torres is asking fellow believers to pray for the inmates.
“For the men, [pray] that the hand of God would show mercy upon those who are actually behind those bars innocently, and that those doors would be open for them. I mostly would ask that our community would be more open to receiving these men,” said Torres.
“The person that committed that crime – 20 years later – is not that same person. They’ve had time to grow, they’ve had time to understand the impact of their crime, what they have done, what they’ve taken away, [and] what they can never give back. They understand that fully. All they can hope for is to get a chance to prove them right, that giving them another opportunity would be a good thing.”
Listen to the podcast interview.
The “50 Stories of Transformation” series, told in honor of the Baptist Resource Network’s 50th anniversary, highlights the many ways God has moved throughout Pennsylvania, South Jersey and beyond. Your generous support of the Cooperative Program makes this ministry possible and fuels evangelism and outreach in our local churches and all over the world! Thank you!