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Planting the Seeds That Another Will Harvest

Missionary Disciple Profile: Sharon L. Miller, Director, Catholic Charities Cathedral Social Ministries, Bridges of Hope Faith-Based Reentry

“Every person is a sacred and unique gift, no matter what their age or condition is. Let us always respect and promote life! Let us not throw life away.” Pope Francis, Sunday Angelus, Jan 29, 2023


How long have you been involved in Bridges of Hope and in helping those released from prison to reintegrate into society?

I became involved in creating faith-based reentry in 2011 when I was invited to represent the Catholic Church and those being released from incarceration. I assisted in founding our current faith-based reentry program and creating Bridges of Hope to serve the county. Providentially, when I came on board, the county sheriff's office was already at a turning point in providing rehabilitation services through faith communities because it recognized that connecting released inmates with a chaplain increased the chances of successful reintegration.

What most impacts and challenges you in your ministry?

I have witnessed a lot of change in the last 42 years. During the 1980s, the county’s services expanded; however, we lost the edge in the early 2000s, and we currently do not have enough housing and treatment centers to meet the demand. Healing from the wounds of incarceration is a long road, and reentry preparation should begin before someone’s release. I am inspired that our county jails are in the middle of shifting from punitive to more rehabilitative measures. Bridges of Hope surrounds former inmates with a culture of tenderness to heal from trauma and succeed on a practical level with stabilizing services.

Why should Catholics care about reintegration?

The Church’s respect for all life requires building transformative communities of forgiveness and working to level the economic playing field for true social and environmental sustainability. Without the Church’s mission, our community would be missing out on viable human connections and on creating productivity, inclusivity, healing, and kinship.

Can you describe a time you've experienced the 'throwaway culture' that Pope Francis warns against regarding reintegration? What was your takeaway from that experience?

In my experience, the throwaway culture that Pope Francis speaks of surrounds those released from prison, our homeless elderly — and whole families — and those struggling with mental health and addiction living on modern-day American streets. My takeaway is that Catholics, heeding the Holy Father’s warning, need to combat this stigma by working together to solve current dilemmas, such as appropriate responses for those resistant to help and those who have been arrested due to mental health and addiction. Do we just let them live a chronic life of homelessness?

Can you expand on volunteer opportunities available for the clergy, religious, and the laity?

If a layperson or priest is interested in chaplaincy or detention ministry, they should talk with the Associate Director of Restorative Justice with the Diocese of San José. Spending time with those who are incarcerated restores hope. Creating Bible studies and providing hospitality that encourages participation and community is an essential need. Once the soul is fed, life begins.

How have you been personally transformed while working in this field?

When I was a young nurse at O’Connor Hospital, Father Jerry Helfrich, former pastor of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph, initially inspired me with his deep love for the homeless and the imprisoned. He also exposed me to the amazing ministry of Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboys Industries, which helps thousands of former gang members positively change their lives. I finally met Fr. Greg this year at a retreat! I would like to share a quote of his: “The measure of the health of a community is when it stands in awe of what the poor have to carry, rather than judging how they carry it.”

Lastly, if you had one word to describe your ministry, what would it be and why?

Love, because those who grew up in generational incarceration and those who are homeless have all expressed to us at some point that we are the only ones who genuinely love them. Within that startling statement lies a universal call to all Catholics to become informed about faith-based reentry, which approaches those reentering our communities with the financial resources to rebuild and the spiritual and emotional support to travel the journey together. When I mentor a colleague or a Jesuit Volunteer challenged by a client who is not making it, I tell them, “You have planted the seeds. Let the seeds be. Water them. The person you care for will harvest what you planted, even if it is in another season.”

Sharon Miller is a Pastoral Associate and Director of Cathedral Social Ministries with over 40 years of experience working, volunteering, and worshiping at the Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph. She has helped found many charitable organizations, sat on various boards, and created various social service groups in Santa Clara County. She works as a Catholic Charities director and oversees the Bridges of Hope program, which aids in helping those released from prison reintegrate into society.

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