News 07 Jun 2024

Prison Ministry in Ecuador: Freeing souls through Christ's mercy

The international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) supports a prison ministry programme for priests and lay volunteer missionaries in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, Ecuador, to care for and accompany both prisoners and their families, offering hope in the environment of insecurity that has taken over the country in recent months.

Aleida Mejía speaks calmly into the camera, despite the sounds of prisoners shouting in the background. In a steady voice, the lay missionary tells ACN why she dedicated her life to evangelizing in prisons in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, a region of Ecuador badly affected by violence. “The Lord has taken me to places where his Word is seldom heard, due to a lack of missionaries,” she says.

Lay missionary Aleida Mejía takes the Word of God to Ecuador’s most notorious prisons

The situation in Ecuador deteriorated in 2023 and since then has been increasingly unsustainable. Murders have increased by 69.31% over the past year. In April 2024, President Daniel Noboa declared a second state of emergency to fight the insecurity which had put life in the country on hold. With the military patrolling the streets and intervening in prisons – which negatively affected the work of the missionaries – the image was that of a country torn by civil war. The social crisis began in the main state prisons – including the regional prison in Guayaquil – and came to a boiling point last January when the inmates rioted, causing explosions, kidnappings, shootouts, looting and fires, leading to an initial state of emergency. The prison in Guayaquil was only brought under control again in April.

"Mercy is for the hardest of hearts"

Given the situation in Ecuador, prison ministry has become more important than ever. There are over 12,000 inmates in only five prisons, and the number of missionaries is negligible in comparison.  This is why ACN is supporting a program to train more lay volunteers in the archdiocese. The program also includes the refurbishment of eight chapels, to guarantee the security of everybody involved.

“In this mission we have to overcome very complex obstacles”, the missionary explains. "The moment we enter the prison facilities we face many challenges. By the simple fact of walking in we are confronted with the difference between the social reality on the inside and outside; the attitude of the police, who see us as an annoying formality, and the prison guards who think there is no point to what we are doing, much like the rest of society. But it is all worth it." 

“And then, there is the fear we feel ourselves,” she continues. “The fear our families feel in allowing us to be among the most despised people in society, all of whom are stigmatized as disposable and filthy. But this is exactly where Jesus wants us to be, because He calls us to love all His children, since we are all sinners.”

The criminal gangs mostly recruit young men between the ages of 15 and 27, often while they are in the prison system. When these young men lose hope for an honest life, they easily fall for the temptation of furthering a criminal “career.”

Maria Cristina Santacruz is the archdiocesan coordinator for prison ministry in the Archdiocese of Guayaquil. She tells ACN that “here, the challenge is to love the unloved, the insignificant, the unappreciated.” She also deplores that “nobody believes in prison ministry. People think that this world should be neglected. But the Word of God tells me that mercy is precisely for the most hardened of hearts. I have hope, and I believe that this project is the will of God.” These two missionaries are part of a team of more than 100 people, including bishops, priests, religious, and lay missionariewho “offer their lives for their brothers,” María Cristina says.  

"The work done with the prisoners includes talks and Masses, as well as workshops and courses on Christian values and faith. The mission has already borne fruit, according to Aleida: “We have brought Jesus to these people. We have witnessed deep conversions; we have seen Christ set these souls free.”

The program also offers support for the families of the inmates and vocational training so prisoners can make an honest living when they regain their freedom. “Many of these souls have already left the prison system; they are parents, and they are doing things for society,” Aleida says. On the other hand, she stresses the importance of “praying for this mission, so we can continue to train missionaries who free captive souls. We carry the Word of God, which tells them that there is a God who loves us and sets us free.”

María Cristina says she is deeply grateful. First, to God for having “called [her] to this mission and shown [her] it is worth it,” and then, to ACN and all those who generously cooperate and “believe in this mission, as I do. Here I am, Lord, to do your will, to free the captives, as He freed me,” she says with a smile.

ACN supports this formation project, which aims to provide emotional support and spiritual formation to incarcerated adults, fostering the internal reconciliation and social reintegration necessary for a country recovering from conflict.

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