By Richard Meek

The Catholic Commentator

The response was simple and direct.  

 

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Jay Jackson, right, who recently retired as chaplain at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, unloads supplies at the prison in 2018. He is assisted by Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes/Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, and Rob Tasman, center, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops. File photos | The Catholic Commentator

 

More than two decades ago, a co-worker of Jay Jackson approached Jackson about the idea of volunteering at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola. The co-worker, Bill Gipson, did not have to wait long for an answer.  

“I told him I was not interested,” Jackson, who at the time was involved in several other ministries at St. George Church in Baton Rouge, said. “It took me by surprise because it was the farthest thing from my mind.”  

But Gipson persisted, and Jackson started thinking “maybe I’m being asked to be stretched a little bit.”  

So he decided to accompany Gipson on three visits to Angola before making a final decision.  

It only took one.  

And now, 21 years later, Jackson has retired after spending the past four-and-one-half years as the prison’s full-time chaplain.  

“First of all, (the initial visit) knocked down any preconceived notions I might have had (about Angola),” he said. “It wasn’t like anything I expected.”  

On a day that would forever change his life Jackson visited every area of the prison, with each cell block spinning its own tales.  

“What touched me the most was the appreciation from inmates that someone (from the outside) was showing interest in them,” he said. “They were very appreciative.  

“It was a plant that needs water and no one else is bringing water to the plant.”  

Jackson returned home and told his wife he believed serving at Angola was his calling, and “it’s been that way ever since,” providing spiritual irrigation for the nearly 500 Catholic inmates at the prison, along with many others who were either non-denominational or “unchurched.”  

What started out as monthly visits quickly doubled and tripled.  

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Jay Jackson, right, shown with Bishop Michael G. Duca during the bishop’s visit to death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, recently retired as the prison chaplain.   

 

He first served alongside chaplains Father Joel  Labauve, followed by Father “Tippy” Hurst and then worked together as a team with Father Bernie Papania, who was on loan to the Diocese of Baton Rouge from the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi. When Father Papania was called back to Biloxi, he called Jackson and asked, “Are you ready to come up full time?”  

At the time, Jackson said he was planning on retiring from his job where he had spent the past 39 years in sales. 

 “It’s amazing how God works things out,” he said.  

“Jay Jackson is a consummate man of faith, love and service,” said Bishop-Emeritus Muench, who appointed Jackson full-time chaplain on an “interim basis,” a tag he carried until his June 30 retirement. “His tenure as chaplain at Angola has been marked by his infectious smile, pleasant disposition, brilliant intellect, endearing heart, impeccable professionalism, amazing talent and ultimate motivation to serve the entire Angola community.   

“The Diocese of Baton Rouge owes Jay a great deal for his indispensable dedication and leadership in this multi-faceted assignment,” the bishop added. “I know both the residents (as I have always called them), the administrators and staff of this place have immeasurably benefitted from his generous sharing his gifts for the sake of Christ, the church and society. ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ ” (Mt. 25:23).  

Rubbing elbows and showing compassion on a daily basis with some of society’s most hardened criminals can be one of the most taxing ministries the church offers. For Jackson, however, the ministry has been a gift.  

“One of the things that really struck me the most was the application of what I had been teaching,” said Jackson, who had been volunteering as a catechist at St. George. “So often you talk about loving your neighbor and love others as the way Jesus loved them. But when you are confronted with that and you are talking to the people who victimized families and hurt people and some might be a serial killer, you are called to love that person.”  

Jackson said ministering to inmates “was a conversion” and made him realize he was being called to love and reach out to those same people others might ignore.  

“I realized I was seeing the face of Christ when I was face to face with those men,” he said. “It gave me a much deeper appreciation for my Catholic faith.  

“I realized this is what it means, this is what I’ve been teaching, this is what I’ve been taught: looking at the face of people who are lost, hurt, fragile.” 

Jackson has learned most of the men have hardened shells but internally are weak and vulnerable. He said they are all human beings with feelings.  

“They have remorse for what they have done,” he said. “They can’t stand the person that they were themselves. They are looking for someone to pull them out of that water.”  

He added that many inmates, some of whom have even shed tears in his office for myriad of reasons, have a genuine desire to be a better person but because of their own dysfunctional backgrounds, they don’t know how to change their lives.  

“My feeling is society is only as strong as its weakest link,” Jackson said. “And if we keep suppressing people we as a society will not get stronger and remain as weak as its weakest link.  

“With the church’s involvement we can make society better. I feel like that is the richness of our faith.”  

Linda Fjeldsjo, coordinator of Joseph Homes and Prison Ministry for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Baton Rouge, said she first met Jackson when he was a volunteer at Angola. She said years later Jackson’s enthusiasm and commitment to the ministry remains strong.  

“His dedication to the inmate population is known not only with the inmate population but is also recognized by the  prison administration,” she said. “He receives everyone, of all faiths,  with the  dignity and respect that our church teaches.  Whether he is providing spiritual support to those confined in a cell or conducting a Communion service at one of the many chapels at Angola, Jay provides the inmates an opportunity to learn more about their faith.”  

Although only 500 of the 5,700 inmates at Angola are Catholic, Jackson said the ministry is the most active at the prison. Inmates have the opportunity to attend Mass on a weekly basis or at the minimum receive Communion once a week in their cells.  

Jackson had instituted a Catholic Trivia Bowl in the chapel that included facts about the church that were presented in the chapel, with coffee and donuts offered. But just as it was gaining in popularity, the coronavirus pandemic shut it down.  

Jackson said he wrote an individualized letter to all of the Catholic inmates notifying them of his leaving because he has not had the opportunity to visit with them in several months. In the letter, he said he has met “some of the most incredible people” and thanked the inmates for helping him better understand who he is and showing him what God’s love truly means.  

He thanked the inmates for showing him Christ and encouraged them to recognize the gifts they have in themselves.  

Jackson did not say good-bye, however, because even in retirement he will continue to visit the prison as a volunteer.  

“Every single day, without exception, I felt like I got closer to Christ because I saw the face of Christ through those men and I don’t want that to stop,” he said, emotion cracking in his voice.  

“I’m going back up there not to serve but to be fed. And I want that to continue. I don’t want to starve to death.”