Prison ministry coordinator looks back and sees how God was preparing her

Theresa Alvarado felt a calling to be Jesus to the men and women behind bars in the Diocese of Wichita. She is the new coordinator of the St. Dismas Ministry to the incarcerated. (Advance photo)

Want to volunteer for prison ministry?

Those interested in joining the St. Dismas Ministry are invited to an information night at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 30, in room 205 of the St. Joseph Pastoral Center located east of the Cathedral at 443 N. Topeka in Wichita. There is a great need for volunteers to bring love, companionship, and Jesus to prisoners incarcerated in the Diocese of Wichita. For more information email Theresa Alvarado at [email protected] or call 316-269-3900 ext. 165.

Theresa Alvarado couldn’t understand why God kept putting different opportunities in front of her.

In 2018, she began working for the Diocese of Wichita in the Catholic School Office and in the Office of Faith Formation. About a year later she began working part-time only for the Office of Faith Formation.

Job changed her life

“That was a real blessing. Being a part of the Curia changed me and changed my life because it gave me such an opportunity to be able to grow my faith,” she said.

God quickly began being more apparent in her life.

“God kept putting different opportunities in front of me and I didn’t understand. While I was working part-time for Faith Formation, I had the opportunity to be involved with some other organizations in our community, one of them being Harbor House.”

She continues to assist at Harbor House on an as-needed basis.

“I’ve been able to serve families in our diocese who are fleeing domestic violence, who have been victims of sexual assault, or simply people in crisis who need somebody to just be there,” she said. “Because that’s all I do. I’m there so that they feel safe and so that they are safe. I’m somebody who will listen, somebody who will get them something they need at that moment. It’s a support role.

Understands domestic abuse situations

She has also worked for agencies that address domestic abuse in Wichita and Newton.

“Families are hurting because they’re alone,” she said, adding that there are many resources available “but families just don’t know how to get connected to the right organizations.”

Alvarado said she learned a lot helping those facing homelessness, housing insecurity, utility problems, and other situations.

“I wasn’t quite sure why God was sitting me at these tables and why he was having me do this work that I never thought I’d do,” she said. “I never saw myself doing social services or ministry, I never saw myself there.”

When the position of coordinator of St. Dismas Ministry to the incarcerated became available she didn’t consider applying for the job.

“Somebody else came to me and said, ‘Theresa you’d be great for this.’ And I thought, really?” she said. “I prayed about it and I realized this is what God had been preparing me for. It was like this is what I’m supposed to do.”

Alvarado said prison ministry allows her to use all of her life experiences and to be a compassionate, empathetic ear to someone, and to be a vehicle of God’s grace.

“I tell people I see how God was preparing me…from the day I was born to be in this position,” she said.

She has some relatives who have served time. One of them, an uncle, spent a great deal of time in prison. “He was finally released to the family about two years before he passed because he had dementia. He died thinking he was still in prison. So, you know, I feel like God has been preparing me.”

Compassion needed

Those in crisis situations need love, Alvarado said.

“We want to be compassionate. We are not here to judge, we’re here to share our love. When we share love and we have compassion, we’re really giving a gift of God, we are giving them God.”

Alvarado said it may not be a coincidence that in her interview for the job in prison ministry, she used the phrase “we are all prisoners to something,” a phrase that is also used in prison ministry training.

“I said that in my interview because I firmly believe that and we have to remember that God doesn’t judge us. In the same way, we should love our brothers and sisters.”

Being love to everyone

Her ministry to those with dire needs helped her begin to understand what it means to see God in everyone. “It’s easy to say but it’s not always easy to do. Jesus did that even to his last breath.”

Alvarado said her path to prison ministry has been a long one with many twists and turns.

Although she was baptized a Catholic and received First Communion, her understanding of the faith stopped there. She attended a Baptist church for many years and loved its fellowship and community, something she dearly missed when she returned to the Catholic Church.

Alvarado later became more involved in the church and received the Sacrament of Confirmation. “From there my whole life changed. I realized what my mission was…what I was called to do. I’m called to see the face of Jesus in every single person. I have to do this, but how am I going to do it?”

She said God answered her by placing her in different roles and situations.

Volunteers are needed

The situation she faces as head of the prison ministry for the diocese is finding volunteers to bring Jesus to the incarcerated.

“Of course, Jesus is already there but we need to bring God’s love and compassion. That can be as simple as going to Mass with somebody,” Alvarado said. “They are so grateful that we give of our time. They have a great desire to celebrate Mass, to experience that fellowship, and to learn more about God and their faith.”

She said she is sometimes shocked at how well they know their faith.

“It’s amazing to me. I feel like I receive a blessing from them.”

Alvarado is a member of St. Anne Parish in Wichita and has three children.