Lay missionaries offer warm welcome at West Virginia hospitality house
By Eileen Connelly, OSU
The Catholic Telegraph
Their faith initially brought Brian and Kathleen DeRouen together as graduate students at the University of Dayton and ultimately let the couple to a hilltop house in West Virginia where all are welcomed with compassion and open arms.
Brian originally hails from the San Francisco Bay area; Kathleen grew up at St. Ann Parish in Hamilton. At UD, both were active in campus ministry, shared many classes and attended the same meetings. “We kept finding more reasons to spend time together,” Brian DeRouen recalled. “There were many signs that the Spirit was moving to bring us together.”
The couple was married in 2005, but had already had an experience that left them with a special place in their hearts for prison inmates and their family members. While they were engaged, Brian DeRouen spent four months at a Federal Prison Camp (FPC) in California after committing an act of civil disobedience. “It was an opportunity pray a lot and look at where living a Christian life can lead you,” he said.
He and Kathleen realized the meaning that visits from family have for those who are incarcerated and the challenges that can arise when planning such a visit. What they didn’t know just yet was that God was leading them toward a ministry that would enable them to offer hospitality and hope for inmates and their loved ones.
The couple left the Cincinnati area in 2007 to live and work at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic community in Appalachia. While there, the DeRouens discovered the Alderson Hospitality House (AHH), which supports the women of FPC Alderson, a minimum security prison, and their friends and families. It seemed like the perfect ministry for them, said DeRouen, and they have lived at the house and served as its directors since 2009.
Originally established as a Catholic Worker House, the AHH opened in 1977 and has since served more than 50,000 overnight guests. The residence provides a place for self-surrendering inmates to spend the night prior to going to Alderson FPC, and temporary lodging for visitors. Guests are not charged for the lodging, meals, transportation, assistance and other services provided at the hospitality house. Their visitors run the gamut, from the wealthy and well educated to those who never graduated from high school. Many surrendering inmates arrive alone, completely without support; others are accompanied by members of their church, praying and offering support.
“When people arrive here, they are met with love, understanding, listening ears and information,” DeRouen said. “Christ’s presence is in the this house. There are no strangers, only friends you haven’t met.”
A big part of their job is listening, he said, responding to what they hear and answering questions. “People need to know the basics – how visitation and health care work, how to interact with the guards, how it works to get a job. Marriages often fall apart when one spouse is incarcerated, but we have seen families who have survived. We have those kinds those kind conversations. It really helps the ladies and their families to know that other good, normal people have gone through this and that they will get through it.”
For him, one of the toughest parts of the job is transporting a woman to the prison camp. “I’ve had to pull a baby out of woman arms as a guard drags her away, knowing that she won’t be able hug that child again until he’s 10 years old. There’s no way to make that easy.”
The husbands and children left behind also need plenty of support. “A lot of the men are angry,” DeRouen said. “It’s not what they signed up and they can use some extra help getting through. And, the kids need to be able to able to talk about their experiences, too, and know that it’s ok for them to be angry over their mom going to prison.
One of the most “incredible” aspects of their ministry is “meeting people in their pain and walking with them through that,” he said. “It’s hard to think about peoples’ pain, but they need to know someone cares. They need to experience that human connection. Our faith allows us to dive in with people and walk with them in their struggles. That’s not only good for them, but life giving for us, as well.”
“There are so many rewards to what we do,” DeRouen continued. “Our whole job is to just to love people. There’s the joy that people respond with when they are expecting to be ignored or judged, and instead are treated like family. And, we get to see the face of Christ in every person that enters the house. Our guests are literally Christ in our lives for us. What better thing is there than to hang out with the face of your God every day? Our guests can’t hide their humanity. We’re able to show them ours and be whole together.”
For more information about their ministry, CLICK HERE.
This story originally appeared in the October 2015 print edition of The Catholic Telegraph.