Dcn. Craig Voldberg kneels before the Eucharist in adoration. With fellow Ladysmith cluster Dcn. Doug Sorenson, he has tried to live out God’s mercy as a chaplain with the Rusk County Sheriff’s Department and county jail. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

As recorded in the Diary of St. Faustina, number 742, Jesus Christ spoke about the importance of living God’s mercy in addition to celebrating the feast, as he requested, on the first Sunday after Easter.

“My daughter,” Jesus spoke to Sr. Faustina, “If I demand through you that people revere My mercy, you should be the first to distinguish yourself by this confidence in My mercy. I demand from you deeds of mercy, which are to arise out of love of Me…

“I am giving you three ways of exercising mercy toward your neighbor: the first – by deed, the second – by word, the third – by prayer. In these three degrees is contained the fullness of mercy, and it is an unquestionable proof of love for Me. By this means a soul glorifies and pay reverence to My mercy.”

With their foundation in Scripture, the Catholic Church has traditionally divided the Works of Mercy into two groups – corporal and spiritual.

The corporal works of mercy remind us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit the prisoners, bury the dead and give alms to the poor.

The spiritual works of mercy instruct us to counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish the sinner, comfort the sorrowful, forgive injuries, bear wrongs patiently and pray for the living and the dead.

While the Feast of Divine Mercy was established in the 1930s through the mission entrusted by Jesus to the Polish Sr. Faustina Kowalska, pictoral representations of the works of mercy in church art date back to the 12th century.

Dcn. Craig Voldberg, who serves in the Ladysmith cluster, has also served as a law enforcement chaplain in Rusk County with fellow Dcn. Doug Sorenson (retired) for almost 10 years.

It was an encounter during the Easter season that started the men’s involvement. A man who’d been in a physical altercation came to the church asking for help. He was directed to Dcn. Voldberg. After further troubles, and not being from the area, he asked to leave his personal belongings at the church before spending time in jail.

Wanting to continue supporting him after incarceration, the deacons found the only way to visit him in person, not via phone behind bulletproof glass, was to become chaplains.

This was the start of what became more than a dozen local chaplains working with prisoners. Dcns. Voldberg and Sorenson are, however, the only ones who work directly with the local police in addition to serving at the jail.

The chaplains provide Bible studies, Sunday worship and holiday meals, among other projects, such as providing greeting cards they can send.

COVID “took us out” for almost two years without access to the jail, Dcn. Voldberg said, “although every now and then we’d have somebody who was having some emotional problems, (received a death notice) or needed to just talk to a chaplain. Then Dcn. Doug and I would go up and spend time with them.”

When prisoners are released, which can be any time of day or night, they might need housing. The chaplaincy program is able to put them up overnight or transport them to other areas, including regional homeless shelters when local options are full.

“We’ll have people in transition that have nothing,” Dcn. Voldberg said, “and the only friends they’ve got are the ones that helped get them into trouble.”

With many inmates having burned bridges with family and friends, the goal is to help those persons find resources, services and support in other localities.

Clarifying that as a Rusk County chaplain, “There’s a fine line between ministry and advocacy,” the deacons have to discern what they can and cannot do for individual prisoners.

Dcn. Voldberg shared that many of the chaplains are Mennonite, others Evangelical, Baptist and from the Church of Christ. They can use their religious materials but only in the jail. When the person is released, they must be connected to someone else in the community so there is not an extension of the sheriff’s department into someone’s private life.

According to the Rusk County Sheriff’s Office 2020 Annual Report, the county jail’s daily inmate average was 30-40 people. Chaplains were unable to volunteer hours for jail and inmate programs in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2018 and 2019, more than 430 volunteer hours were logged.

The report listed the primary purposes of the Law Enforcement Chaplaincy Program as supporting the agency by offering spiritual guidance to persons confronting a crisis experience, serving as a communication link between those persons in crisis with their own spiritual advisors and coordinating follow-up counseling for those interested. It also includes providing 24-hour, seven-day-per-week support as needed for those tasks which have more of a spiritual, rather than legal, nature.

During the interview, the deacon acknowledged the very complicated nature of how to both serve law-breakers and protect law-abiders. As a concrete example, the sex offender registry – with its wide array of offenses that require temporary or lifetime registration – disallows anyone on the registry for any reason to come onto a church property where there is a school.

Dcn. Voldberg gave the example of someone who is Catholic and although married – and always accompanied by their spouse in public – has never reoffended. Still, that person is unable to use their musical talents in the church community because they are not allowed to be in the vicinity of Our Lady of Sorrows School.

With the desire to respect the law and safety of others, the deacon said their immersion into public life with that “branding for life” is made very difficult and challenging.

This topic led to the discussion of recurrent offenses related to addictions.

“Eighty percent of the time, law enforcement is dealing with 20 percent of the individuals,” he said, adding how the cycle is very generational.

“It’s unbelievable the generations of what happens in a house – things in their minds acceptable, but unacceptable by law,” he emphasized, “and then trying to change that mindset that ‘this is what we always did.’”

It extends from issues with conflict resolution to sexual offenses to drug addiction.

“When we have inmates in the jail with suicidal tendencies,” Dcn. Voldberg shared, “we have to get to why is this happening … a lot of times they’re just afraid. They’re afraid of the next step … If they’re going on to a penitentiary – those can be violent places even though they’re a controlled environment.”

That said, he also recognized, “There is more restorative programs than there are on the county level. There’s just not enough money to do therapy, anger management, drug addiction management on the local level … In the state and federal systems, there is,” he said, in addition to education and vocational opportunities.

“I try to remind inmates this all the time – this is a safe place,” he noted. “You don’t want to be here, but as long as you’re here you’re not reoffending and you’ll be fed and housed … once you’re out of here, now you have a choice.”

He acknowledged that a lot of support is needed for good choices to be made and maintained, but there are programs that help get them into mainstream society and teach them how to cope with the challenges and rejections that come with being a former inmate.

“There’s always a diamond in the rough. Someone, that by the grace of God, will be able to maneuver their way out and then become almost a spokesman,” he said. “We’ve had inmates from penitentiaries come back and tell their stories of how they got into drug addiction, how they got into prison. And how somebody just stepped in and gave them the time of day, gave them the respect and dignity of a human being and allowed them to walk a different walk.”

Dcn. Voldberg affirmed the “incredible” importance of the role of the family – both positively and negatively.

“Most of the people we deal with come from dysfunctional families – multiple disruptions and single parents with numerous partners … We see this so often, particularly with inmates who become homeless,” having burned bridges with family and friends who have taken a tough-love approach. “We tell them they have to build bridges.”

The chaplains are able to help in an emergency, but when it becomes a pattern, the persons themselves are not doing their part to sustain an upward trend of change.

Facing all these challenges takes a toll, the deacon agreed, but said their work with law enforcement – the compassion and humanity with which officers treat people when you might expect cynicism and negativity – is awe-inspiring. Both law enforcement and the jail staff, in his experience, have huge hearts.

“The Divine Mercy – how can I tie that in?” Dcn. Voldberg answered. “When Jesus was coming to Jerusalem and he has tears because he wanted, like a mother hen, to gather those chicks into his arms to protect them. Because they’re hurting themselves, so much. Here is the guy who can do everything, and even he had to weep because it was so sad” to see the self-destruction.

He spoke of the mothering spirit of chaplains and support persons, and how often they have to experience what Jesus did, applauding the perseverance and hope it takes to stay the course of helping others with so much stacked against them.

Applying the conversation to living out mercy in everyday life, Dcn. Voldberg mentioned a book called “The Spirituality of Imperfection” by Ernest Kurtz. He has read it multiple times and benefited greatly from its message about how to understand people and their actions.

“It’s so easy to cut people off – but human beings carry a lot of weight on our shoulders,” he said. “It’s tough to give a person a second chance.”

Mercy was again addressed as a virtue that doesn’t negate justice, but just as God is not afraid of the messes in our lives, neither should we be.

“God’s mercy means that we can’t be rejected,” the deacon affirmed. “It’s in rejection that we let ourselves down. It’s carrying guilt and shame that makes us hopeless and helpless… feel like we’re not worth anything.”

The Scripture to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” can be misinterpreted. Jesus made clear that he didn’t come for the righteous but for those who need saving.

“When we believe that a fall defines us,” Dcn. Voldberg said, we need to remind ourselves that God doesn’t give up on us, and neither should we give up on ourselves. “It’s the journey that God wants us to experience.”

At the heart of it is the call to accept and embrace our imperfections, accept the help and grace we need and just keep picking ourselves up and following God’s invitation to accept his love, forgiveness and mercy.

While the coronavirus pandemic took a toll on the prison ministry in Rusk County, Dcn. Voldberg has been encouraged by donations made to a local fund. The fund, called the Area Clergy Association, helps former inmates get to that next step – short-term housing, transportation to reunite with family or get away from an abusive situation, help in obtaining prescription medications.

Donation to the association can be sent to Dcn. Voldberg at W4707 Birch Road, Glen Flora, WI 54526.