I’ll never forget the moment I first heard about David T. Link.
I was at the University of Notre Dame for a business meet-ing. I was introduced to Mary Nucciarone, whose longtime ca-reer as a f nancial aid off cial has given her a panoramic view of Notre Dame’s leadership. Mary mentioned that Dave, who is the founding president of Notre Dame, Australia, as well as dean emeritus of the Notre Dame Law School, had recently become a priest. Known for his ardent championing of civil rights and for cofounding the Center for the Homeless in South Bend, Dave is also a dad and grandfather. Both he and his wife of forty-f ve years are beloved—and here, Mary became emphatic—by every one. In 2003, just when Dave was all set to enjoy retirement, Barbara died of cancer. Five years later, Dave was ordained to the priest-hood. Now in his seventies, he spends his days inside supermax-, maximum-, medium-, and minimum-security prisons, where he is changing lives.I felt the zing of an arrow going straight into my author’s heart. “THAT’S A BOOK,” I shouted. I asked whether anyone had written a book about this man. Mary tilted her head and considered my question. Awaiting her answer, I felt a wildness that bordered on panic. Finally, she gave the answer I was hoping to hear.
“I don’t think so.” I knew in that moment that the telling of this story was my destiny.It did not take long to arrange a f rst meeting. Father Dave and I talked, laughed, even shed a few tears over a breakfast that lasted three hours. There is a luminous quality about him, and I found it very distracting. This f rst impression has never been dispelled. I came to understand that the source of this incandes-cence is happiness.In the beginning, one question drove my inquiry. I had to know: Why, in the twilight years of a spectacularly successful life— precisely when he is able to dial it down from the frenetic pace he kept up for f fty years, when he f nally has the time to relish his family, his friends, and his accomplishments—does a man put aside a life of ease to become a Catholic priest? The answer to that question is both simple and complex. This book is that answer. You are about to meet someone who has changed my life: Reverend David T. Link, whom I call Father Dave. Get ready. He just might change your life, too. Father Dave upends what we think we know about mercy, compassion, justice, and service. He shows that even in the most fallow of f elds the seeds of peace can be sown with the hand of friendship. He demonstrates how helping others can be the purpose of life as well as the joy in life. His faith is straight-forward: love is a verb; everything else is just chatter.
Behind the razor wire, Father Dave seeks to connect with prisoners who have the potential to become camerados, people who are more than friends but less than dependents. Although he is happy to lend a hand, he refuses to engage in giving handouts. He will help people on their journey, but he will not make the journey for them; his expectation is that they desire and reach for the healing hand of love. In ministering to men behind bars, Father Dave has chosen not to wait for these prodigal sons to have a change of heart, re-trace their steps, and come f nd him. He has gone to where they are—to the steel-barred cells and guarded housing units where thousands upon thousands of human beings have been ware-housed. Father Dave’s immersion in the prison world has led him to understand that our criminal justice system is itself a kind of prodigal son, and he has written a comprehensive Crime Peace Plan that will save money, restore lives, and rescue the crimi-nal justice system by returning it “home” to its original purpose, which is not to punish but rather to heal. I have spent three years getting to know Father Dave and many of the people who have been touched by his life. In conduct-ing research I was welcomed into some of the most privileged off ces in the world of academe by men and women of letters. Father Dave’s family, friends, faculty, and former students were gracious in entrusting me with their parts of his narrative. I also went behind The Wall to sit and talk with men who have been convicted of murder, assault and battery, armed robbery, various sex offenses, drug dealing, kidnapping, and more. All of us agree that Father Dave is extraordinary, and we see in his story an in-spirational prof le in courage that must be shared.
What began as a study of why one man would sacrif ce the ease of his retirement years to improve the lives of people who are in dire straits underwent an evolution that, not surprisingly, mirrors a metamorphosis undergone by this attorney-at-law. “Along the way, things changed for me,” admits Father Dave. “Before I got involved in prison ministry, I didn’t think about or care what happened to people in prison. I guess I just assumed that they must be bad people or they wouldn’t be in there. You know, ‘You do the crime, you do the time.’ And so it’s a great surprise that God has chosen me for this career.” I was and am still mesmerized by someone whose happiness is so bottomless it seems to stand outside the normal parameters of time, place, and circumstance. And so this is neither a how-to nor a self-help book. Rather it is a story about one man’s compas-sion that gives us a template for joy and fulf llment. To know Father Dave is to be enriched in unexpected ways. One of the gifts he gave me was a keen appreciation for the un-limited potential in my life—indeed, in all of our lives. He vali-dates the notion that there is no such thing as just one calling in life. Life is a series of callings. What I hope to give you with my book is the potent insight and example Father Dave has provided for all of us: the great enemy of love is not hate, but indifference.
PART 1: COURAGE
Prison was not designed for who I am. It was designed for who I was. —Jason Curry, prison resident, Indiana State Prison
One-Way Train Overture
An automated steel gate lurches, clumsy and clattering, like a massive antique elevator door, toward the wall. When the gate collides into the wall, the steel cell in which Rev-erend David T. Link is standing shudders. He hears the latching of the lock as the gate is secured, and then silence. He is mo-mentarily caged while the steel grid in front of him is opened by corrections off cers who work from a remote location. When he steps from the cage, Father Dave crosses over from “the outside” and into incarcerated territory behind The Wall at Indiana State Prison. It is a place in which not many people choose to be.
Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana, is a maximum-security facility that houses three categories of prisoners: violent offenders who have been convicted of crimes such as armed rob-bery, kidnapping, and serial killing; men who have been given long-term sentences for offenses that run the gamut from sex crimes to multiple driving offenses and traff cking in drugs; and people who have been condemned to death. More than 70 percent of Indiana State Prison’s inmates are convicted murderers.
The facility is as old and unmovable as a mountain. In 1859 crowded conditions in Indiana’s one and only prison prompted the legislature to purchase one hundred acres of f at farmland in the northern quadrant of the state, just a couple of miles from Lake Michigan. A new prison was to be constructed on the site to handle the overf ow in the prison population. The f rst struc-ture of what would become Indiana State Prison was built in 1860, President Abraham Lincoln’s f rst inaugural year. It was only two hundred feet long. Two years later it proved useful as a prisoner-of-war facility for the rebel soldiers who were cap-tured by the Yankees in the Civil War. From that single red brick building the prison facility across the acreage, growing over time into an imposing fortress of stark austerity.
Today Indiana State Prison dominates the landscape of a community that seems to have surrendered. Neglected homes and hollowed-out shells that once were stores and businesses sur-round the prison like architectural carnage. The sheer enormity of the complex is intimidating. A thirty-foot-high cement wall prevents anyone from seeing into or out of the prison. This wall, topped by ten-foot-high coils of razor wire, forms a perimeter around a twenty-four-acre compound.
Inside the compound as many as twenty-four hundred men live in four cell houses, two dormitories, and X Row, which is the politically correct euphemism for what used to be called death row. Fifty-some buildings, including a chapel and a f re-house, crowd the compound. A blacktop, two-direction drive-way known as Main Street bisects the prison complex. Identical white headstones stretch like dotted lines on a highway across a cemetery in which hundreds of incarcerated men have been bur-ied. Every sight line is punctuated by unnerving tangles of coiled razor wire or by taut cables of barbed wire. Ten watchtowers loom over this f ercely guarded ghetto.
This is the place in which attorney-at-law, retired academic, and late-career priest Dave Link has chosen to spend his twilight years.
On this particular sultry mid-August Sunday morning, Fa-ther Dave has come to Indiana State Prison to celebrate Mass for Catholic prisoners. One last checkpoint, a narrow wooden guardhouse that resembles an old-fashioned covered footbridge, stands between the seventy-three-year-old priest and the cha-pel toward which he is heading. Stepping inside, he grins. “I haven’t seen you in a while,” he says to the corrections off cer who is presiding at her post from behind a tall countertop. The woman’s face lights up. She tells him what has been going on in her life while he presents for her inspection the liturgical robes and books he is carrying. She looks them over and waves him through.
With each brisk stride down the cement sidewalk leading to the chapel, the Indiana Department of Corrections identif ca-tion tag swings like a pendulum from a blue lanyard Father Dave wears around his neck. Gold letters woven into the lanyard spell Notre Dame Alumni Association, a clue to his identity on the outside. He climbs a few cement steps, pulls on the handle of a wooden door, steps inside the chapel, and is slapped in the face by a bullying wall of humidity.
The cavernous, 6,905-square-foot chapel was constructed more than a century ago, designed for use as both a place of worship and a theater. Today religious services as well as special events such as observances of national holidays and appearances by comedians and musicians are held in this unair-conditioned space. Three hundred and eighty-six wooden seats are bolted to a painted cement floor that slopes from the back of the room to the foot of a large stage. Tall stained-glass windows stretch along both sides of the room, but they are dull and uninspiring. Grime and a black iron grid prevent the refraction of the sun’s rays, ren-dering the glass mute.
Father Dave looks over the room in search of a remedy for the oppressive heat. Spotting some steel-framed industrial ped-estal fans, he makes a mental note to ask some of the guys to plug them in and get the air circulating.
He moves down the long center aisle to the front of the room, crosses over to the right, and tucks typewritten notes for his homily into a shelf beneath the lectern. He places his red leather-bound Sacramentary, the book of prayers he follows in celebrating Mass, on a chair. He lays his white linen alb and white chasuble across the chair back. As he dons the liturgical garments that are worn by Roman Catholic priests all over the world on this Sunday morning, he recites the vesting prayers silently.
Fully dressed to celebrate Mass, he takes up a post in front of the f rst row of seats. Standing with his palms pressed together, he rests his chin on his thumbs and his foref ngers against his lips. He gazes toward the back of the room and becomes still as a statue. Any moment now, the prodigal sons he awaits will be coming through the door on which he is training his gaze.
The stillness is shattered as the door is flung wide. A very large man bursts through the doorway. Two steps inside, he slams on the brakes and scans the chapel. Fluorescent lights glinting off his spectacles create white rectangles where his eyes should be. Father Dave recognizes the burly f gure in an instant. A smile lifts his face, and he calls out to the khaki-clad prisoner.
His booming baritone voice provides Jeffrey Krumm the focal point he is seeking, and Jeff charges down the middle aisle. At six feet f ve inches and weighing more than three hundred pounds, he moves with a lightness that belies his size. Jeff’s bois-terous handshake gives way to a bear hug.
“It’s so good to see you, Doc.”
“It’s great to see you, brother.”
Jeff unwraps his arms so he can stand back and get a good look at the man who changed his life.
People meeting Father Dave for the first time often have a strong impression that there is something about him that is fa-miliar. He seems a hybrid of two well-known American f gures, Emmy Award–winning late-night television talk show host Johnny Carson and “king of golf” Arnold Palmer. Like Carson, Father Dave is quick-witted, and his dimples and merry eyes punctuate a face that is always expressive, often comical. But Fa-ther Dave’s broad forehead, wisps of hair that tend to wander from their assigned places, and guilelessness evoke the gentle-manly Palmer.
“Less than two weeks till the home opener, Doc. Purdue.”
Jeff never fails to trade talk about his beloved Fighting Irish teams with Father Dave. Both men share a passion for all things Notre Dame. Before he was incarcerated, Jeff worked as a secu-rity guard in the student section of the Notre Dame Stadium. Father Dave is a double-Domer—both his undergraduate and aw degrees were earned at Notre Dame. He was the founding president of the University of Notre Dame, Australia and served as dean of the University of Notre Dame Law School for twenty-four years.
“You’ll be there, won’t you?”
Jeff attends the games vicari-ously through Father Dave, and the postgame biopsies they con-duct are a high point of his week.
“You know I wouldn’t miss it,” Father Dave replies, and they jump right into an assessment of the starting lineup.
Soon staccato clangs coming in quick succession signal the arrival of several dozen more prisoners who have hurried to the chapel from their housing units. Some collect hymnals and missals and take a seat. Some talk with one another or with volun-teers from local parishes who visit as part of a prison outreach ministry. Most, however, make a beeline for the priest with the mischievous grin.
Father Dave is a man of many monikers. Each is a tip-off for when a prisoner first met Father Dave as well as how close their relationship is. To most prison administrators and correc-tional off cers, then, he is Chaplain Link. After some inmates learned that he has four doctoral degrees they dubbed him Doc. To “lifers” who attended the correctional education courses he taught in the early 1990s, when he still was dean of Notre Dame Law School, he is Dean Link. To recent converts and new arriv-als, he is Father Link. To those who consider him a close friend, those who were accustomed to calling him Dave before he was ordained a priest in 2008, he is Father Dave. And to thousands of men who live in eight of the twenty adult prison facilities in the state of Indiana, he is Brother.
As the prisoners cluster around their priest, Father Dave looks into each man’s eyes, greets him by name, asks how he is doing, and then listens for the answer.
As the hour nears eleven, two prisoners, David Parrish and William R. “Bill” Dixon, arrange pages on their music stands and take some practice runs through their chords on the electric guitars that Father Dave purchased and donated to the chapel. Thirty-nine-year-old David Parrish is attractive, but his features are veiled by sadness. A philosopher by nature, David is a shy observer. He peers out from behind a thick and wavy mane that spills forward over his brow. Bill Dixon, whose strong, square jaw and erect bearing project self-assurance and self-control, views the world with equanimity from behind clear green eyes. Lean and rugged, the forty-six-year-old looks like a displaced wrangler, as if he should be dressed in Levis and chaps and sad-dling his horse for a cattle roundup.
Bill takes his eyes off of his sheet music. He searches for Fa-ther Dave and f nds him encircled like a quarterback in a huddle. A pensive expression washes over Bill’s face.
The road to incarceration has been long and torturous for every person in this facility. Three out of four are serving time for a murder conviction. Bill’s path to Indiana State Prison in-volved not murder but an anguished and protracted disintegra-tion of self. He offers a thumbnail sketch of his life.
“I was the kind of kid who was Grampa’s favorite. The kid who could do no wrong. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t dreaming of being a musician, and then I got my f rst guitar and started playing at the age of—what, thirteen? Fourteen? Then I grew up, and I got married, and she was the most beautiful wife ever. And we had a son, and he was the most amazing little boy I’d ever imagined. I had it all. And I threw it all away. I started getting high. I got addicted to cocaine. I let cocaine take them away.”
Drugs thrust Bill into a lifestyle that led to years of criminal activity. After his wife divorced him, Bill f gured that he already had one foot over the edge so he might as well go all the way. He was destined for a crash landing.
One night Bill robbed a store for cash and f ed to a contigu-ous county. Armed with a gun, he burst into a house. He ordered the woman inside to put him and her son inside the trunk of her car and then drive through the roadblocks that had been set up by law enforcement. After she had driven them beyond the barri-cades, she was to pull over to the side of the road and let Bill and the boy out of the trunk. Bill drove away in the vehicle, leaving the mother and son by the side of the road. Walking until they found help, the two survived the ordeal physically unharmed but psychologically traumatized. Bill was convicted of robbery, re-sisting law enforcement, and two counts of kidnapping. He was sentenced to two consecutive sentences for a total of seventy-six and a half years.
It took coming to Indiana State Prison to shock Bill into so-briety. As soon as he arrived, he says, that was it for him.
Bill was a resident at Indiana State Prison in the early 1990s when Dean Link f rst started coming to the prison as a guest lecturer. Bill credits Father Dave with helping him grow up, be a man, and put his life into perspective. Does he have regrets? Of course. Can he change the past? Of course not. But having a relationship with someone who models honesty and accountabil-ity showed Bill how to accept responsibility for what he had done wrong—and then move on. Father Dave introduced Bill to the concept that everyone, even a guy in prison, has a purpose in life. It was unfortunate that Bill had to come to prison to be exposed to concepts of personal destiny and personal worth, but Bill car-ries himself with dignity now that he understands that it is not too late to get it right. After all, as he has learned from Father Dave, nothing less than eternity is at stake.
Bill’s father died when he was a child of nine, and he freely admits to wishing that he had been blessed with a father like Dave Link. He says, “I wouldn’t be in this place if I had.” Sitting beside his fellow musician with a guitar cradled on his lap, Bill looks across the room at Father Dave and says to nobody in particular, “Every time I see that man, it makes me want to be his son.”
Bill’s mood is lifted when Father Dave glances over and aims one of his upside-down smiles, the double-dimpled one where his mouth forms an inverted U, toward the musicians. Bill tilts his head toward David and says, “Who else smiles like that? No-body but him.”
At 11:00 a.m., the prisoners wrap up their conversations and scatter to their seats. Father Dave has moved to the back of the room. Deacon John Bacon, the prisoners who will serve as lec-tors, and the prisoners who are altar servers line up two abreast in front of the priest. Father Dave looks to the musicians, gives them a nod, and Bill and David begin strumming their guitars. Altar server Jason Garver grasps a brass pole on top of which is mounted a crucif x, steps forward, and the procession begins.
As he walks up the aisle, Father Dave looks from one side of the chapel to the other, establishing eye contact with some of the prisoners. Details of their personal narratives come to him in a rush. To the left is the guy who broke down when Father Dave, envelope in hand, paid a call to his prison cell to wish him a happy birthday. The man had wept because Father Dave’s was the first birthday card he had ever received.
To the right is a man whom Father Dave had counseled through a devastating event. One of the duties of prison chap-lains is to let the incarcerated know when someone in the fam-ily has died. Of the many death notif cations that Father Dave has delivered, none was more diff cult than telling this particular man that his mother had been murdered. The prisoner asked if he would be able to attend his mother’s funeral, and it was tough telling him that this could not happen, not even if he were to wear shackles. Father Dave consoled him by promising that if the funeral could be taped they would watch the video together over in the chapel. But Father Dave dreaded what was next, for he had yet to convey the worst of the news. The suspect that the police had arrested was the prisoner’s father. Father Dave sat there in the cell as a mother’s son crumbled. When it was time for the priest to go, the prisoner asked for a favor. He asked for a hug. Seeing this prisoner now, Father Dave feels that embrace reverberating in his heart.
The procession reaches the space that would have been used as the orchestra pit in days long gone. Father Dave bows before the altar upon which, only minutes earlier, Jason arranged can-dles, linen cloths, a chalice, and the Sacramentary. Father Dave turns to the congregants of the St. Dismas Community, so named by the prisoners after the “good thief” who called out to Jesus from the cross upon which he himself was hanging, and throws his arms open wide in a formal greeting to begin the liturgy.
It is August 15, the Roman Catholic Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, which marks the taking up of Mary’s body into heaven at the end of her earthly life. Father Dave has crafted the homily around this event. One cardinal rule he observes in writing his homilies is that each takes no more than six minutes.
Jeff Krumm says that he anticipates Father Dave’s homilies with as much eagerness as he looks forward to phone calls from home. “The f rst time I heard Doc give a homily, it seemed to me that I was the only guy in the room. Years later I still feel that way. And every time he gives a homily, he gives a slam dunk.”
After the introductory rites and the readings, it is time for Father Dave to give his sermon. The chapel is steamy and the men are still. Father Dave walks to the lectern, gives his notes a quick review, looks out upon his congregation, and begins.
“We all have a human mother who gave us birth, of course. In some cases, there is another human mother who raised us.”
Around the room, heads are nodding.
“But we also have a spiritual mother who watches over us every day, no matter where we are.”
He sketches what little facts are known about the mother of Jesus. She was a young girl, he says, and she lived in a backwater village, a place of poverty and little education.
“In essence, our spiritual mother was a teenager from the ghetto. And she had a tough life.”
He lists some of the hardships that Mary knew.
“Today we celebrate the solemnity of this woman being taken directly into heaven. And we wonder, Why? Why did God take Mary directly into heaven?
“Think about it. This was his mom. And He had the power, so, why not? Maybe He wanted to save Mary from the sorrow of death. That’s probably part of it. It may have been to reward Mary for having endured great sorrow in her lifetime. That’s probably also a part of it.
“But most likely God assumed Mary into heaven because He wants us to know for sure that our spiritual mother is in heaven, where she is caring for us. Be assured that right now Mary is look-ing down on this chapel with pride and love for all who have come to honor her son.”
At this point his shoulders drop, he steps back, and his voice takes on a new tone.
“To me it is amazing how little of what Mary said has been captured in Scripture. Perhaps the most famous are the words she spoke at the wedding feast at Cana. She told the servants, ‘Do whatever He tells you.’
“Her advice was meant not just for the servers at a wedding reception. Her advice applies to all of us who are the spiritual sons and daughters of Mary.”
Father Dave scans the chapel. When he is satisf ed that he has made eye contact with as many upturned faces as possible, he says, “Do whatever He tells you.”
He tucks his notes back into the shelf, folds his hands, and returns to his chair, where he sits during a brief period of silent reflection.
Jeff glances at his watch and smiles. Just under six minutes.
Jeff says that Father Dave’s homilies give him food for thought that lasts throughout the coming week. “I know there’s a world of knowledge in that man’s head, and so you better believe I’m paying attention to what he has to say.”
Jeff blames no one but himself for the disgrace and disappointment he has caused his family. He credits Father Dave for the moral maturity and sense of accountability he has attained since he was imprisoned at Indiana State Prison. He says that Father Dave helped him to see that it was his own narcissism that had prevented him from being able to admit to and seek help for a personality disorder that would lead to his incarceration. Jeff says, “Not a week goes by that I don’t request advice from Doc. I found in him a friend that I can trust. He is a conf dant and he is a brother to me. He changed my life by bringing me around to the idea that my life is worthwhile, and it is not too late to amend my life.”
Thirty-six-year-old Todd Anderson was also listening to Father Dave’s homily with rapt attention. “I was adopted,” says Todd. “Last year at around Christmastime my parents lifted me up after they made a statement that they were sorry they didn’t give the love that they should have given to me and my sister.
“If you are in need or hurting, there should be someone you can go to. That’s how I see Mary. Even though I never knew my real mom, and that kind of hurts, Mary has opened up my heart to my real mother and to praying for her. One day, if my mom is still alive, I would like for us to cross paths and sit down as mother and son and talk.
“But I know that Mary is looking down on us and that we are her own children.”
As if the thought has just occurred to him, Todd adds, “You know, in the Bible Jesus never called her ‘Mother.’ That’s be-cause he wanted us to know that we’re hers, too.”
Todd says that Father Dave has changed his life in two ways. First, Father Dave brought an element of reality to his concept of love. “He is so caring. He has such a loving heart. I used to think it was just words, but now, through him, I really do feel God’s love. And I feel more at peace.”
Second, Father Dave helped Todd become a better member of his community. “I used to be a very violent person,” Todd con-fesses. “I didn’t care about anything. I wouldn’t ever ask forgive-ness of anyone. But now if I do have a little burst of anger I have the heart and the courage to go to that individual and ask forgive-ness, and explain what happened, and apologize. And it all comes around to the inspiration that I get from Doc. I’m so touched by him. He’s like a great-granddad—a high-priority person that I look up to. He is a true father to me.”
Whatever their personal histories might be, by the way that he addresses them Father Dave sends a clear message that he is expecting the best they can offer. To Father Dave these men are not inmates or prisoners; they are residents. They are not fel-ons; they are former felons. They are, he says, his brothers. It means the world to the prisoners, all of whom are reluctant to talk about their pasts and many of whom would rather be judged based on the people they have become, that Father Dave treats them with this kind of civility.
Anthony Wheeler, whose good looks and elocution call to mind the actor Sidney Poitier, explains, “Dr. Link thinks of us as people. He has an uncanny ability to sense what we need without being told. He has a genuine concern for me—for my emotional and my physical well-being. He introduces me to people as ‘my brother, ex-felon Anthony Wheeler.’ ”
By design, prison life is lonely. Anthony has spent many hours of his incarceration writing poetry. In his poems Anthony examines motifs such as family, friendship, solitude, and love, and he has collected some of his work in an unpublished volume entitled “From the Inside Out Comes Poetry from Within.” He says that Father Dave has helped him attain a state of mind in which he is better able to tolerate the unrelenting solitariness of long-term imprisonment.
“Dr. Link is a presence even when he is not here,” he says. “I read a poem about how we are born alone and we die alone, and that everything in between is a gift from God. Father Link has no idea what impact he’s had on my life. But his presence—the fact that he is here—takes away my feeling of being alone.”