Leavenworth. You’ve heard of it before. The U.S. Penitentiary in Kansas known for holding the most notorious federal prisoners — like James Earl Ray. It’s often referenced in action movies; sometimes it appears in a scene. Fr. Greg Steckel, the new minister at St. Bernadette’s Catholic Church, spent four years there … in prison ministry.
“Believe it or not,” he said. “Big men do cry.”
Steckel served there from 2001-05, the last four years the prison held maximum-security inmates.
Steckel started last week at St. Bernadette’s and sister church St. Joseph’s of West Liberty. Ordained July 12, 1981, after finishing his degree at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minn., Steckel’s ministry extends 31 years. Of that, he spent 20 years reaching out to inmates in four different prisons: The East Moline (Ill.) Correctional Center, Leavenworth, the Yankton (S.D.) Federal Prison Camp, and Fort Madison (IA) State Penitentiary.
“Often it is grief,” Steckel said of inmates who cry with him, “being sad about things that happened at home.”
He said his time at the prisons taught him that changing hearts takes time, and that is true for law-abiding citizens, too.
“You learn to be patient in seeing things develop,” he said. “You’re not going to shape people into what you want them to be.”
Steckel said he got into prison ministry when the senior chaplain in East Moline was looking for someone to work part-time with him.
“It was 11 bucks an hour and I was available,” Steckel said, smiling.
Key to reaching inmates with a message of changing their lifestyles was getting fellow inmates to deliver that message.
“I can’t say that” and get them to listen, he said. “But when you see another guy say ‘Give up on the old life,’ that gives them the motivation and positive attitude to move forward.” Steckel said he saw Illinois’ Pre-Start program, which teaches basic world skills like budgeting, and Jesus Others You, an outreach program, really resonate with men.
“Guys (in prison) were such egomaniacs, so egocentric it is hard to break them out of their own little world,” he said. “We tried to give them a sense of community. Some have never been involved in a church until they got into prison.”
Prison ministry was not as dangerous as one would think — not to him, that is.
“The worst part was me losing my temper several times and asking for backup,” he said. “It wasn’t so much that the inmates were offensive. But I would give them exactly what they were asking for and it’s not good enough. There were situations where I should have taken it easy and calmer.”
The priest came here from Lost Nation, where he lived for three years serving three parishes in that area: Sacred Heart in Lost Nation, St. James in Toronto, and another Sacred Heart in Oxford Junction.
He said patience will allow him to minister to members of the congregation and then “sit back and see what the Holy Spirit is doing and let them be.”
“That’s tougher in a small community,” he said. “But you have to have mutual respect (with church members).”
Steckel said some of the most powerful moments in prison ministry were actually with fellow staff. He had been part of a crisis team and they conducted mock exercises that included interview sessions in which they each practiced talking about their own horrific experiences.
“Those were formal settings, but no one had ever asked them to debrief on a horrible experience,” he said, remembering one staffer who was up in a ceiling during a riot an unable to do anything about it. “No one ever asked him how he felt about that.”
Steckel said his view of the priesthood is “letting a community form itself.”
“The hardest part in a small town is that it is the way it’s going to be,” he said. “There’s no way of changing things in a few years. You have to let he parish find its own strength. … It’s not a me-and-God thing, it’s a God-and-us thing that includes me.”
The purpose of the church as a whole, he said, is working toward the Kingdom of God.
“I call it the ‘Jesus Revolution,’ — it’s something immediate, perceivable in the present, connected with everything that has ever been. … Jesus is calling us forth with a different perception of life which sees past disasters. You need to appreciate continuity, the glue to get us through anything life throws at us.”
Steckel said that he is part of a Justice Peace Advocacy Team that addresses human trafficking.
“(It) is in this area, along I-80,” he said. “Just because we’re blind to it doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
He said truckers know about it and are part of the network that tries to reach other truckers involved in the trafficking.
“Instead of saying ‘This is wrong,’ we do peer model ministry, one trucker to another,” he said.
Steckel said he supports Farm Bill’s food assistance program — formerly food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — by lobbying that it has “all funding, and even more” because that is a basic human need in times of economic stress.
But at the same time, he wants to teach people to work in the church more than simply preserving an old building.
“Young people want to see you producing something” in a church setting, Steckel said.
He also wants to see churches set the example for government.
“Politics says ‘Here’s the program, support me and vote for me and give me money for my campaign,’” the minister said. “The church needs to sustain itself at the least expense to the participants.”
He sees politics using religion to its own ends.
“Politics wants to use power, control and money to achieve its ends,” he said. “It’s a completely different outlook. The church gives motivation for government to do things correctly, it gives us values and ethics.”
He does not want politicians taking religious people for granted.
“We need to say we believe in these things, like life begins before birth,” he said. “But if they say ‘right to life,’ but don’t do anything about it …”
His favorite part of the Bible is when Jesus heals the paralytic (Mark 2) and asks the religious authorities if it is easier to do that than forgive sins.
Steckel said we each have the power to forgive people who sin against us, though only God can forgive people who sin against Him. Still, he does not know which is easier, telling a story of a friend who had been paralyzed by Lou Gehrig’s disease yet is now, through prayer and treatment, getting better, despite there being no known cure.
“He is now able to walk and talk, move his hand, wink, breathe (without a ventilator) — that’s pretty impressive,” Steckel said.
With all the times Steckel moved from one ministry to the next, he is not sure how long he will remain in West Branch. The diocese may have other needs.
“It would be great to stay here the rest of my life,” he said. “But I don’t know if that is realistic.”
Steckel said he is the one who got Fr. Dennis Martin into long-distance bicycle riding when he rode from Minnesota to Fr. Martin’s parish in Farmington, Iowa, 30 years ago.
Right now, he has an Elkhound (like a husky) as a pet, but no other major hobbies.