At Thrive Church Network, we pride ourselves in the success of our ministers and the ministries in which they serve. We are honored and excited to introduce Mary Ann D’Onofrio, ordained minister with the Illinois Assemblies of God, and chaplain at JUST of the DuPage County Jail, to you today. Mary Ann was gracious enough to participate in an interview about her work, which we are privileged to share with you.
TCN: Mary Ann, thanks so much for taking time to share with us, and our readers about your ministry. Many of our readers are unfamiliar with the ministry you are part of. What is JUST?
MARY ANN: JUST is a non-profit organization (the letters stand for Justice, Understanding, Service and Teaching). For the last twenty-five years, JUST has been dedicated to meeting the needs of inmates in the DuPage County Jail and their families, by providing programs such as addiction recovery, life skills, education, and clergy services. We are an interdenominational ministry serving inmates of all faiths and none. We seek to benefit inmates in a holistic manner.
How did you become the JUST chaplain?
When I was an associate pastor at First A/G in Wheaton, I did regular visitation at hospitals and nursing homes. One day, I visited a church member in the DuPage County Jail. As I sat talking to this inmate, the woman next to her asked me if I could please talk to her too.
At that moment something clicked. A few months later the executive director of JUST visited our church and asked if I would be interested in coming to the jail for half a day every week to provide some individual guidance to women. I was hooked from the start. When the position of chaplain became available, I applied and here I am.
What are some common misconceptions of prison ministry you would like to address?
There are many! I’ll try to limit myself to these five . . .
- You have to be male to work in prison ministry. One of my first days on the job, a volunteer chaplain told me I couldn’t do this work because I wasn’t a man. I do not accept that. God has blessed me with a tender mom’s heart that men and women respond to. I often hear, especially from the guys, that they could never tell a male chaplain the things they tell me. I’ll continue to do this until God tells me to stop!
- Prison ministry is not for everyone. If you have an agenda or come to it because you think it’s “cool,” you will be sorely disappointed and may actually do more harm than good.
- Prison ministry is not for the faint of heart. One of my first days on the job, I was asked to see a woman who had just murdered her four-year-old daughter. As she was handcuffed to the bench, she started speaking in different voices and told me about the satanic cult she was part of. She asked me to resurrect her baby. NOTHING prepares you for that.
- Inmates are people just like us. They just got caught. We’re all one crime away from being incarcerated.
- It’s not all sad. I laugh every day with inmates. You have to be able to bring and embrace joy.
What is the most rewarding part of your job as jail chaplain?
The most rewarding part of my job is also the hardest: I inform inmates when a family member has passed away. I visit naked men on suicide watch with just a blanket wrapped around them. I sit down with Muslim men and have conversations about God. I have sat with so many mentally ill people. I meet people all the time who have just murdered their children or their spouse.
While these situations are horrible—and they are—God is at my side with loving words of healing and hope. No inmate is a hopeless case. It’s a privilege to be with these inmates in their moments of intense grief. I can’t believe sometimes that God lets me do this!
What has been the hardest situation you’ve dealt with?
One of my saddest was sitting with a twenty-six-year-old man who had just received a life sentence without parole. As he was crying, he asked me, “Pastor Mary Ann, what is my life’s purpose?”
We prayed. He looked up and asked, “Is anyone praying for the world anymore? I think God is telling me that I’m supposed to pray for the world. Twenty-three-hour lockdown for the rest of my life will give me plenty of time to do that.”
That situation was incredibly humbling. Even in the midst of terror, God can give someone purpose!
What has been your (and JUST’s) greatest success?
Every Wednesday afternoon I do a church service for men, run like a real church. We have ushers and readers. We have video worship music. I introduced corporate prayer a month ago. To me, this is preparing them to be part of a church community and fellowship when they get out.
I sometimes wish that Christians could experience this raw kind of faith that I get to see every day. The language is rough, the burdens are heavy, the sin is horrific, but the grace is amazing.
A pastor on the outside once said to me, “I’m so sorry you have to do that job.”
I responded, “Are you kidding me?! I have the greatest job in the world. Every day I get to see lives being changed. Do you get to see that every day?”
JUST is moving people forward in freedom from addiction, crime, and their past, into REAL freedom in Christ. What more could we ask for?
About Mary Ann
Mary Ann works full time as a chaplain with JUST and part time as the Family Pastor at Hobson Road Community Church. She's been married for 39 years to her husband, Bob, and together, they are the parents of 4 children, and grandparents to 10.
For more information, or to get involved with what JUST is doing in DuPage, please visit their website at www.justofdupage.org. Mary Ann can be reached personally at the jail office at 630-407-2233.