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home : opinion : perspectives

1/9/2014 9:00:00 AM
Abused as a child, brother finds niche in prison ministry
Brother Ken
Brother Ken

Brother Ken Lucas, OFM Conv., has never been to jail, but he feels a kinship to the incarcerated people he counsels at Albany County Correctional Facility.

Brother Ken understands "being away from home, being locked up, being with strangers, being scared, angry [and] lonely, being told what to do, not being fed well [and] being abused."

That's because, as a child in foster homes, he and his siblings were fed so insufficiently that their stomachs swelled. They were locked in cold rooms for extended periods and physically abused. He was hit in the back with a rock when his nervous tics annoyed one foster parent. His sister didn't live past toddlerhood.

Since jail ministry became Brother Ken's niche a decade into his 38 years as a Franciscan, he said, "I've taken all that and turned it around and made it my greatest gift."

Albany days
For many years, he served New Jersey facilities full-time; for the past six, he's ministered in Albany three days a week.

One day is spent assisting at separate Masses for male and female residents. On the second and third days, Brother Ken does counseling and spiritual guidance for Catholic residents, and walks down the cellblock to see if anyone else would like to talk.

One man cursed at Brother Ken for three months every time he issued the invitation. But one day, "I got, 'Brother Ken, you're driving me nuts! You're so [darn] sincere and such a gentle person. Do you think you have time to talk to me?'" the 68-year-old brother recalled.

"Most of the time, they feel much better" after talking, Brother Ken explained. "They feel relieved; it's a release.

"They already have the answer," he continued. "They can heal themselves. We all make mistakes and we're very sorry about it and we're angry, and we just need somebody who will listen to us. I can't go out on the street without running into somebody from the jail [thanking me]. I tell them they're not crazy - they're just like everyone else."

Educating everyone
He emphasizes this point with faith formation students at St. Mary's parish in Nassau when he does yearly presentations about incarcerated people, whom the children usually characterize at first as bad.

"I say, 'No: good people who made a bad choice.'"

Brother Ken hopes this education will rub off on parents, too. He says society is quick to marginalize or demonize people who go to prison.

"The first thing we can do is pray," Brother Ken suggested. "An inmate is somebody's son, somebody's daughter. He or she is a human being. When I hear [Jesus'] words, 'When I was in prison, you came to visit me,' that sticks in my head."

Brother Ken's journey to his ministry and vocation wasn't always clear. He attended Mass throughout his childhood - a result, he believes, of being under the care of Sisters of St. Joseph at an orphanage in his native Watertown.

At church, he said, "I felt comfortable. I didn't feel fearful." He took especially to the Stations of the Cross: "Maybe I related to the suffering."

Brother Ken's mother regained custody of him and his brother after 12 years. His brother entered the Navy at 18, while 15-year-old Brother Ken followed his mother and Army stepfather around the country and to Germany.

After three repetitions of the seventh grade because of a learning disability, his German principal suggested he quit school. He worked at an Army depot until his family returned to the U.S., at which point Brother Ken joined the U.S. Marines and served for a year in Vietnam.

Finding his way
By then, he'd fallen away from the faith. He returned home and worked in an aluminum factory in Oswego for 12 years. A coworker began to ask him if he'd ever thought of being a Catholic priest or brother.

"I said, 'Would you just leave me alone? Mind your own business,'" Brother Ken remembered. "He just laughed it off and kept putting [information] in my locker."

One day, he saw a sign for an afternoon Mass at a church along his route home.

"I don't know why, but I stopped and went into the church," he said. "The red light was on for confession and I went in [and] said 'Father, I don't know where to begin.' The first thing he said was, 'Welcome home.'"

Receiving the Eucharist that day gave him "peace that I hadn't felt in many years. From that day on, I went to church every single day."

A vocation soon followed. He studied at the former St. Anthony-on-Hudson Seminary in Rensselaer in the 1970s and later did maintenance work there; he also manned the gift shop at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda before beginning jail ministry.

Brother Ken also earned his GED high school equivalency diploma in the '80s.

Reader Comments

Posted: Saturday, June 4, 2016
Article comment by: Samuel Cernaro

Working with him in Oswego my only regret is that i could have understood and listened more carefully to probably one of the most gentle and sincerest man i know. His laugh was low, his smile real, but inside you could tell he was searching for something. Don't know if he found God or God found him but peace soon followed. We miss seeing you my friend
Sam & Mary Lou

Posted: Saturday, February 6, 2016
Article comment by: John Farragher

I knew Bro. Ken during a period of time I spent in the Franciscan formation program at St. Anthony on Hudson approximately 40 years ago and have never forgotten him . Afterwards, I returned to Toronto and, prior to my retirement 2 years ago, was employed as a School Psychologist for 38 years. It doesn't surprise me that, building on his personal history and experiences growing up, he entered the prison ministry. What a wealth of knowledge and insight he has been able to offer - as evident in the article! A true blessing to those he's worked with.

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