You Visited Me: Prison Chaplaincy in the ACNA

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I was in prison, and you visited me.”

Those are the words of Jesus to His disciples, to His body, to us, the Church, in Matthew 25:36.

These are words that Father Julio Valenzuela takes to heart as a prison chaplain at a federal correctional facility in New Mexico. The days are long as a prison chaplain. The correctional facility needs more chaplains as they are short-staffed. Therefore, Fr. Julio often works seven days a week to cover another chaplain’s absence or vacation. The hours are also long and irregular, with a need to have a chaplain on duty 24/7. This means there are many nights when he is away from his family and ministering to the prisoners in his care.

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Get to Know Father Julio

Fr. Julio Valenzuela baptizes a soldier in the Nacimiento River in his role with the New Mexico Army National Guard.
Fr. Julio Valenzuela baptizes a soldier in the Nacimiento River. (Photo: Staff Sgt. Timothy Jackson. Public Domain.)

I caught a moment between visiting prisoners with Fr. Julio this past week to learn more about his chaplaincy. He serves with the Anglican Church in North America’s Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy. He is the province’s ecclesial endorser for all military, hospital, hospice, industrial, prison, and other chaplaincies requiring endorsement. Fr. Julio not only serves as a prison chaplain but also is a Major and military chaplain for the New Mexico Army National Guard.

This is a priest who has no time to rest but is always on mission. I asked him what helps him get through the day and what resources he needs most to support his ministry. “Prayer,” he answered. “Prayer is what gets me through the day, and I need your prayers and the prayers of the church for my work.”

I was simultaneously shocked and humbled. Here is a priest with challenging restrictions in his ministry who doesn’t complain about his challenges. Instead, he calmly explained that speaking with our Lord sustains him (“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”). His one request was not money, Bibles, nor even a fresh stole, but for the church to pray for his ministry and the souls he encounters.

The Front Lines of Spiritual Warfare

The reality is that Fr. Julio is on the front lines of spiritual warfare. He stressed the reality of the spiritual battles and attacks that he, his family, fellow chaplains, and those he serves with are facing. It’s “challenging due to the brokenness [of those he serves] and barriers to faith.” Despite the difficulties in ministering to hard hearts, Fr. Julio explained that chaplaincy is both “very challenging and rewarding at the same time.” His voice picked up as he explained, “[Because] I have literally a captive audience, there is long-term opportunity in ministering to those who are here with me.

“That’s not something you always get in a parish,” especially considering the transient nature of today’s culture.

One challenge is the outright hostility coming at Fr. Julio from practitioners of Wiccan magic, pagan religions, outright Satanists, and others hostile to Christianity and Christian chaplains. Fr. Julio and his fellow chaplains are attacked or hindered by several of these non-Christians through “incantations, spells, and hexes they attempt to cast on our ministry,” he shared, “and at times, the [prison] warden will call me into a meeting to pray over everyone.”

“There are nineteen religions represented at my [correctional] facility alone,” he explained. “That’s not nineteen denominations. That’s nineteen religions and Protestants all lumped together as one of the nineteen.” As the New Coverdale Psalter reminds us in Psalm 9:13,

Have mercy upon me, O Lord;
consider the trouble I suffer from those who hate me, *
O you who lift me up from the gates of death.

Fr. Julio and I prayed for those who pursue a false religion and the way of darkness to repent by the power of the Holy Spirit and to turn to light amidst darkness.

The Prayer Book in Prison Ministry

Fr. Julio noted it is especially difficult that the federal government “doesn’t get us [Anglicans] at all.” He laments, “They don’t know what to do with us [so they lump Anglicans with other Protestants].” But Fr. Julio uses the Book of Common Prayer to provide distinctive Anglican services for the people he serves. The Word of God is being preached and the Sacraments are delivered. The gates of hell shall not prevail, much less the bars of prison—those made by the hands of men or those made by the sins of man. The reality is that the Church, Christ’s body, is alive and well behind bars thanks to the efforts of chaplains like Fr. Julio.

However, the challenges of tending to the flock behind bars in prison ministry are tenfold. Simply getting books behind bars varies from institution to institution and many require extensive paperwork. This is especially true in federal correctional facilities like the one where Fr. Julio serves. The government requires paperback books in prisons because it is easy to use hardback books to create contraband such as weapons from the hard edges.

For this reason, the paperback Prisoners’ Edition of the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer is a welcomed resource for chaplains who would like to save money on printing services every week or multiple times a week. Additionally, its availability empowers Christian prisoners and inquiring incarcerated persons to learn the Christian faith and keep the rule of faith outlined in the Anglican tradition.

The Prayer Book is a resource that makes monks out of cellmates. It can transform the prison cell into a monastic cell, a place to commune with the Almighty. I pray this paperback Book of Common Prayer leads another Benedict to create a Christian community in correctional facilities and bring the Gospel to both the incarcerated and correctional staff.

Conclusion

My conversation with Fr. Julio benefitted me far more than it likely helped him. His ministry is expansive. It includes the prison warden, the correctional officers, the facility staff, in addition to the prisoners. I was struck by his levelheadedness, rootedness, and maturity beyond his years as a minister. This is a man who has and is on the frontline of spiritual darkness. He sees the stark realities of sin, death, and slavery to Satan while many of us in the so-called free world fail to see the depth of sin’s hold upon us. We’re too distracted with the phone you’re likely reading this article on.

“If we’re not living holy lives, then we are taking our faith for granted.”

Amen. May we each take note of Fr. Julio’s ministry and pray for his ministry as both a prison and military chaplain. May we also pray all those Anglican chaplains serving on the front lines in hospital rooms, in hospice care, on deployment “over there,” in board rooms, and beyond.

Suggested Prayers for Chaplains:

2019 Book of Common Prayer, Occasional Prayer 60: “For Prisoners,” on page 664.

A suggested intercession for Mid-Day Prayer, from the Jurisdiction of Armed Forces and Chaplaincy:

  • Military Chaplains ministering in peace and in harm’s way,
  • Hospital and Hospice chaplains attending to the ill and dying,
  • First Responder Chaplains bringing solace in chaos,
  • Community Chaplains engaging the helpless and hopeless,
  • Education Chaplains challenging the wisdom of man,
  • Prison Chaplains encouraging those affected by incarceration, and
  • Industrial Chaplains providing a foundation where none exists,

Lord, in your mercy:
Hear our prayer.

Photo by AZemdega for Getty Images, courtesy of Canva.

Author

Andrew Brashier

Andrew Brashier serves the nation's largest Christian ministry for prisoners, former prisoners, and their families as Legal Counsel. He is a bivocational church planter and is the rector of Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd in Pelham, Alabama.

View more from Andrew Brashier

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