For most of his adult life John Woods was known as Prisoner No. B27737.
Woods, 45, has been in and out of the Illinois and Missouri prison systems since the early 90s.
“I would always end up back behind bars within a month or two for using drugs or committing burglaries,” he said.
However, on a recent chilly February morning Woods was marking his 64th day of freedom. He was paroled from Southwestern Illinois Correctional Center in East St. Louis (the former Assumption Catholic High School) in October.
“This is the longest I’ve been out and not used drugs or done anything illegal since 1993,” he said.
Woods said he owes it all to the Office of Prison Ministry, one of the ministries supported by The Catholic Service and Ministry Appeal. Prison Ministry brings Catholic service and perspective to those affected by incarceration in the 28 counties in the Diocese of Belleville, including their families, victims and communities.
“John is a good example of when prison ministry works,” said Father Christian Reuter, OFM, Prison Ministry coordinator.
Woods recently got a job driving a truck for a glass company in Missouri and on Sundays he attends Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Columbia where he lives with his mother. “I’ve been getting lots of compliments from my family and from old friends who are also working hard to straighten out their lives,” he said.
Woods was raised a Roman Catholic and attended grade school at St. Catherine Laboure in Cahokia, but had to leave because he required special schooling which could only be had at the public school.
In his teens he got involved with the wrong crowd, began using drugs and committing burglaries to pay for the drugs.
That was pretty much his life story until one day when he found himself locked in a dorm with 24 other prisoners in a prison. “I had a problem with a guy and for some reason I started praying. I said ‘God, if you leave this guy in this room I’m going to put my hands on him.’
Soon after that they called his name and took him to another housing unit.”
It was a wake up call for Woods. He started attending Mass and Bible study.
Soon after that he began volunteering to help out at Mass and served as the unofficial sacristan and lector at the regular Masses celebrated each Wednesday.
“He was highly regarded by every priest, deacon and lay volunteer who were a part of our rotating ministry schedule at the correctional center,” said Father Reuter.
In October Woods was confirmed at SWICC by Bishop Stanley Schlarman.
“I knew my mom would like it,” he said. “I was looking for another way to live, for a meaning to life. Suddenly everything changed for the good. I came to the understanding that I don’t need chemicals to live, that I am still a person even though I have a past. Father Reuter and the deacons and lay ministers really opened my eyes and my mind to a better way of living. From here to there it’s a whole other world.”
“Every one has his own path as to how they do this,” Father Reuter said.
On a recent day, John’s mother texted him: “This is the John I always prayed for.”
“Me too,” he texted back.