Last year, the student council at Cathedral School voted to purchase 25 Catholic and 25 Protestant Bibles for inmates at the Douglas County Jail. Middle school students created inspirational bookmarks for each Bible, and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul also made bookmarks with contact information. The Bibles were delivered to the jail in May 2016 and May 2017. Here, students pose with Fr. Adam Laski. (Submitted photo)

Anita Draper
Catholic Herald staff

If you met a victim of sex trafficking – a woman who had been kidnapped, raped repeatedly and ultimately aborted her captor’s child – would you listen to her story with compassion? Counsel her in the faith? Console her in her suffering?

Where would you meet such a woman?

In jail, possibly – at least that’s where George Blenker met her.

For the last 11 or 12 years, the 78-year-old member of St. Joseph, Rice Lake, has been bringing God to the Barron County Jail – meeting with inmates, listening to their stories, giving them prayer books and copies of Rick Warren’s “The Purpose Driven Life” (which he buys in bulk), and helping them when they get outside.

Blenker met the trafficked woman a couple of years ago. She’d been working in Mexico when she was kidnapped.

“It breaks my heart for a woman to have to talk about her abortions and her rapes with me,” he said.

But, there were no women to listen, so Blenker did his best.

‘Desperate need’

There’s a great need for women in jail ministry, Blenker said, but there’s also a dire shortage of men willing to counsel – or just listen to – those who’ve gone astray.

He said he’s tried asking for help, but for whatever reason, Blenker has not had much success recruiting others to the cause.

In his more than a decade in jail ministry, Blenker has been aided by one woman. That lasted for two years, until her health ended it, and now a man, new to the area, has agreed to pitch in.

By and large, Blenker has been alone.

“Visit the imprisoned” is a Corporal Work of Mercy, and Blenker feels Catholics aren’t responding to the call.

“I would like to see more Catholics going to jail,” he joked, but then added more seriously, “I can’t come up with two Catholics to help me.”

For research purposes, Blenker stopped by Rice Lake’s hip new community church – the type with a built-in coffee shop, a train station-sized lobby, good marketing and a rock band on stage.

They had 30 to 40 people signed up for jail ministry.

He was amazed.

“I can’t get a single person from the diocese to help me,” he said.

That is an exaggeration, he admits. Fr. Gerald Hagen, for example, pastor at St. Therese, Phillips, and its cluster parishes, is very involved in jail ministry. Fr. Dennis Mullen, who is retired, has spoken with inmates in need of special care, including those with suicidal histories, and Fr. Ed Anderson, currently pastoring St. Joseph and its cluster parishes, has gone to the Barron County jail to hear confessions.

Those are just the examples he knows of – the Holy Cross Sisters, on the Merrill side of the diocese, have a jail ministry, and doubtless other churches do as well. As part of their ministry to the poor and indigent, diocesan chapters of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul visit inmates who contact them, give Bibles to jails for distribution and help with basic needs, among other things.

Blenker would especially like to see involvement from more lay Catholics – and a more coordinated effort – and he’s willing to invest. He’ll travel anywhere in the diocese to help churches launch new ministries or to speak about his work. He has former inmates willing to come along and give the insider’s perspective. Blenker is in a financial position to underwrite some expenses.

He is committed.

Getting inside

All jails are not equally receptive to ministry, he said. Blenker serves the Barron County Jail, and he once had clearance to meet inmates at the Polk County Jail, but he knows not every institution is so welcoming.

He suggests anyone interested in ministering at a jail should meet with the sheriff first.

The job itself is simple.

“We go in there, we meet with people,” he said. “Basically, we just listen. You go in with an agenda, but you almost always end up scrapping it.”

Although Blenker has taken Communion to inmates in the past, it’s rare.

“We get very few Catholics,” he explained. But, if a Catholic meets with a priest who confirms there was a confession, Blenker will take the host in.

“I’m quite fussy on who gets it,” he said.

He believes fear – of violence, of meeting bad people, of the unknown – is keeping Catholics from this mission of mercy.

Overall, he said, the inmates interested in meeting him are drug addicts, alcoholics or both. Almost everyone he sees is there voluntarily.

“Most of them are basically good people,” he added. “We don’t get the bad people. For the most part, they’re there because they really want to (be there).”

“I do get a lot of repeat business, unfortunately,” Blenker said. There are “way too many people” he’s seen land back in jail three or four times. In an attempt to slow the revolving door, he meets them on the outside and tries to steer them right.

“I’m hoping against hope that by meeting with them, I can help them straighten out,” he said.

Some of his stories end in success. Of the two prostitutes he’s met with, one managed to break away. She’s now married with twins.

The other, he said, “probably is never going to break away.”

Search for a successor

When Blenker took up jail ministry, “I had a dream,” he said, alluding to the speech given by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blenker hoped to get enough people to expand into four or five counties.

His objective has changed.

“Realistically, I’m just hoping to keep Barron County going,” he added.

Blenker had a heart attack two years ago that put him out of commission for nine months. As he nears 80, mortality is on his mind.

He is searching for a successor.

“I’m thinking that’s why I’m still around – God knows there’s nobody out there, so he’s going to keep me here forever,” he joked.

Blenker invites anyone interested in jail ministry to contact him, 715-234-4779.