VINELAND — Celia Gutierrez, 45, stands less than five feet tall and looks at least a decade younger. Her presence is quiet, reflective, hardly imposing.
Yet most every day she can be found at the South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, a place where some of New Jersey’s most hardened convicts spend years.
She’s worked there for the past 11 years as a mental health therapist, where she uses skills learned by earning a master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University in Camden.
But she goes beyond her job, feeling called by God to do more, by, she says, “giving the message of salvation” to sick and dying prisoners. As a regular routine, she takes her lunchtime to sit and pray with prisoners who have no one else. She has become a presence on the wards: Even the Muslim prisoners point out who might need some Christian spiritual solace and consolation.
Mindful of their sensitivities, she asks permission to pray with the patients. None has ever refused.
“Once I put myself in the service of God, he doesn’t leave me alone. He has so much to do,” says Ms. Gutierrez in an interview at the John Paul II Retreat House here, where she takes classes in the diocesan Faith Formation program with fellow Spanish-speaking Catholics from throughout the Camden Diocese. The subjects, taught through the College of St. Elizabeth, range from Scripture to sacraments and pastoral ministry. The cost is subsidized by the Camden Diocese and local parishes, so that participants pay only a third of the tuition cost.
Ms. Gutierrez describes the Faith Formation opportunity as a life changer.
Born in Mexico, she came to New Jersey when she was 9 with her family. Ms. Gutierrez’ involvement in ministry is not new but the classes, she says, have given her a jolt of confidence and the courage to minister to prisoners who are shunned by the wider society.
“I am not a big lady,” she says, but she finds that “the class has helped me to be more bold and courageous.” She feels protected in a place filled with men convicted of heinous acts.
“Through the inmates, I have seen the love of God. I believe in treating the inmates with the dignity they were given by God. When they see that, they respond,” she says.
Her approach in her informal volunteer ministry differs from her work. The prisoners can sense the difference. “I’m not there to do an evaluation,” she says. Instead, she offers a simple message that there is a forgiving and loving God. Within the confines of the prison, that can be startling. While her job grants her access, she holds no formal portfolio, only the care and concern of Christian witness.
She credits much of her involvement to the example of her father, Miguel, a former Mexico City police officer who became one of the first Mexicans to settle in the Vineland area when he brought his wife, Rafaela (now deceased) and their seven children to the area (two more were born in New Jersey).
As a pioneer among Mexicans in the area, Ms. Gutierrez learned about Latino culture largely through her Puerto Rican neighbors. Now Mexican culture — the food and music — pulsates through Vineland. She remembers her father routinely offering space for migrants moving through Vineland, and he would encourage the family to speak freely about their faith. So the faith formation classes continue what was already nurtured in her family.
The classes not only are helpful for her prison ministry. As a religious education coordinator at Divine Mercy Church here, she was able to begin a program to publicly celebrate the sacrament of baptism at Sunday Mass, encouraged in church liturgical documents as a way for the wider community to welcome new members.
She is thankful about the faith formation program for giving her more confidence in her work in the parish and in prison ministry. The low cost to students, and the classes in both English and Spanish, make it accessible. Her English is flawless, yet Ms. Gutierrez likes the cultural connection provided by the classes in Spanish, even if writing in her native tongue is difficult for her.
She wishes more would take advantage of the opportunity.
For herself, she doesn’t yet know where the Faith Formation process will take her. But she is wiling to trust.
“I am willing to do what God asks of me on a daily basis,” she says. So far, she sees God’s hand in directing her to a ministry within the walls of a prison. She offers some words of quiet confidence in prayer mixed with caution: “Be careful what you ask for, because you will get it.”
This is the second in an occasional series of articles on how Faith Formation is making an impact in the diocese. For more information about the diocesan Faith Formation program, call Linda Robinson at 856-583-6116.