It was a brisk and ordinary November afternoon at Juan Diego Friary when I first interviewed Fr. Chris Kerstiens. The leaves, which were beginning to change color, were swaying gently in the wind providing a soothing background hum. We opted to sit in the courtyard patio which offered an opportunity for our interview to be uninterrupted by the usual friendly friar activity surrounding us. Our interview started like any other as Fr. Chris spoke about his passion- ministering to the incarcerated. During the interview, I couldn’t help to think about the many challenges and struggles that Fr. Chris faces in his ministry. I pondered on just how often, if ever, Fr. Chris is able to fully see the fruits of his ministry.
The Holy Spirit planted a question in my heart, “Ask him about his God moment.” I frequently ask friars about their “God moment” when I am interviewing them about their ministries. I define a “God moment” as a moment that is so profound and transformative, that there is no other way to explain it but by the power and grace of God. These are the moments, even if brief, that you truly encounter God and feel His presence surrounding you. God moments are often the moments that inspire people to either start or continue their ministry. Friars have described various God moments to me. Some friars shared that they felt God’s presence when offering Holy Communion to loved ones on their deathbed, visiting the sick in hospitals, and even cleaning the bleeding feet of suffering migrants looking for refuge. After I asked Father Chris to share his God moment, his eyes immediately softened and began to tear.
Some aspects of Father Chris’ ministry to those who are in incarcerated include providing the Sacraments (especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation), hosting retreats and Bible studies, and being present to those who need him. He has experienced many sacred moments but one stood out above the rest. Father Chris recalled one individual who was involved in a terrible auto accident that resulted in the death of his family. He shared:
He and his wife and two children had been at a gathering on that day and the couple had been drinking and using. The family was returning home that evening. This individual, under the influence, drove the car off the road and into an embankment, resulting in the death of his wife and two daughters. He barely survived the accident himself. The individual, understandably , was full of grief, guilt, and remorse. After he recovered, he spent twenty years on the streets of Santa Fe homeless as a heroin addict and alcoholic.
Like a good shepherd, Father Chris encountered and ministered to this man. He could hardly hold back his tears while this inmate described what he had been through and his tortured life as a result of having contributed to the tragic deaths of his wife and daughters. He wished he had died along with them. Father Chris recalled:
I was so deeply moved by what was relayed to me and the inmate’s sincerity and honesty. In the course of our conversation, he reached a point where he could come to some degree of self-forgiveness and was able to at least consider the forgiveness that God was offering him. It was truly a work of God manifesting itself right in front of me. This inmate seemed to have been touched by God and I had the privilege of playing a part in it.
I asked Father Chris if he ever saw the individual again, he quietly responded, “no…”. I do not know if this moment changed that man’s life or faith, but I can positively share that it has the power to, because a moment like this changed mine.
Over a decade ago, I found myself in a similar tragedy as the man who walked with Fr. Chris. After being in an auto accident that resulted in the death of a passenger, I spent years in crippling grief and guilt. I was unable to make sense of my existence, the tragedy that occurred, and ultimately my faith. I was very fortunate to have a supportive network that walked with me on my journey to healing. I am thankful for my family, friends, and therapists, but I am most thankful for the ministries of a lay campus minister and a priest, both of whom I will never know their name or be able to thank in person.
During my time of healing, I moved to a small community in Colorado as a part of a national student exchange program while pursuing my undergraduate degree. I did not know the campus minister at the new university and she didn’t know me or my struggles, but she undeniably knew that God loved me. She worked to provide opportunities of encounter through retreats, mission trips, and coordinating Mass and Reconciliation on our campus. I was walking through the student activities center one Sunday evening and saw a group of my classmates preparing to celebrate Mass. It had been some time since I attended Mass, but the Holy Spirit convinced me to stay. The guest priest was charming, passionate, and for some unknown reason felt familiar. After Mass I did something I had not done since my auto accident, I asked him if he would hear my confession. During this confession, he sat with me, cried with me, and with pastoral eyes full of radical empathy, boldly told me about God’s mercy and the importance of forgiving myself. This was my God moment. I truly felt God’s love and mercy and I have not let go since.
It was this God moment that intrinsically changed the trajectory of not only my faith journey but ultimately my life. The beautiful tragedy is that the campus minister and priest have no idea how the rest of the story unfolded and likely never will. As a lay minister myself, I often put myself in their shoes. It could have been easy for the campus minister to get discouraged at the ever dwindling attendance numbers and questioned if her efforts were worth it or if the students were getting anything out of it. It could have been easy for the priest to decline an additional Mass at the local university because he was tired from his duties at his parish. It would have been easy for him tell me that I needed to schedule an appointment for confession because it was an inconvenient time for him. It would have been easy for both to go home that evening and question if their work even made a difference. But ministry isn’t easy. Ministry doesn’t always provide a thank you or show us clear results that can be easily quantified. As people of faith, we are called to work without ever knowing the results. As people of hope we trust that God will do the rest.
Fr. Chris may never know if his ministry changed that individual’s life and the priest doesn’t know that he changed mine. The beautiful thing is that God works through us, even when we won’t see the fruit. I challenge all ministers during the inevitable moments of discouragement within ministry to remember that we are people of hope. I beg you to remember that the small moments, the ordinary moments, the thankless moments, and the inconvenient moments can bear fruit and even become someone else’s God moment. I beg ministers to act as if God can use every moment in your imperfect ministry to change a life… because He can.
This article was originally published in, The Padres’ Trail, the newsletter of the Franciscan Province of Our Lady of Guadalupe in January 2020. It can also be found on their website here.