Sr. Mary Jo Kahl tells a group of visitors to the Milwaukee House of Correction about the progress Raul Fernandez has made during his eight months of incarceration there. Sr. Mary Jo has met with Fernandez each week to help him complete his pledge of nonviolence. (Photos by Sam Lucero)

A mere 15 months ago, on a darkened side street on Milwaukee’s south side, a hooded Raul Fernandez and an accomplice demanded Sr. Mary Jo Kaul’s car keys and money, threatening the Franciscan Sister of Mary’s life if she didn’t comply.

They pushed her out of her vehicle, and took off heading north in Sr. Mary Jo’s car, traveling recklessly at high speeds before being apprehended by police.

Today Fernandez believes Sr. Mary Jo is his angel who is helping him get his life on track.

Carjacker pledges nonviolence

In early June at the House of Correction, where Fernandez was serving a 12-month sentence for the attack, he read aloud and signed a pledge of nonviolence, where he took responsibility for his crime and promised to change his violent ways of thinking and acting.

Seated around him in the facility’s chapel were Sr. Mary Jo, David Lerman, Milwaukee County assistant district attorney, Rev. Gary Ruckman, House of Correction chaplain and Deacon Troy Major of St. Francis of Assisi Parish, Milwaukee.

They stressed, however, the words of the pledge will remain words on paper unless Fernandez not only “talks the talk, but walks the walk.”
Getting to the public pledge of nonviolence may seem to have happened quickly, but the journey Sr. Mary Jo and Fernandez traveled through restorative justice was arduous.

Attack left emotional scars

Sr. Mary Jo, 67, a Franciscan for 50 years, has spent her life in service to others, primarily the poor. She is a nurse care manager for S.E.T. Ministry and works in refugee resettlement for Catholic Charities.

While she had ministered to the needy and had helped victims of violence, she herself had never been a target. The carjacking left her an emotional wreck.

Fernandez, 24, has spent much of his short life involved with gangs, drugs, alcohol and violence. A large tattoo on the forearm of his left arm proclaims his former allegiance to the Latin Kings. Growing up in one of Chicago’s poorest areas, one of five children of a single mother, Fernandez — who doesn’t know his father — said he began abusing drugs and alcohol at age 13.

At 14, he joined the gang. His mother left the family years ago, and Fernandez, in an interview with your Catholic Herald, admitted he is afraid to hear what’s become of her.

He dropped out of school following eighth grade, but earned a GED. He said he endured a five-minute beating — inflicted upon him by a group of 16 gang members — which landed him in the hospital for two days. He said he suffered the beating as a ritual to leave the Latin Kings in 2002. Even without gang ties, drugs, alcohol and violence were part of his life.

The drug use, he explained, escalated from alcohol and marijuana to ecstasy, acid and cocaine.

High on drugs on April 8, 2005, he and a friend wanted to go to Chicago. Without transportation, they stole Sr. Mary Jo’s car.

As Fernandez explained, in the interview, the two were “so messed up,” they didn’t realize they were heading north, rather than south to Chicago. They were apprehended in Ozaukee County.

Sister’s feelings mixed toward attacker

When Sr. Mary Jo learned the perpetrators had been caught, she admitted her feelings were mixed. The incident had left her terribly shaken — she suffered sleepless nights, a bleeding ulcer and irrational fears for months to follow — but she also felt compassion for her attacker.

“I went through some very mixed emotions. I wondered how can I judge this man.

I learned he was a minority, I knew because he lived in the neighborhood in which I live, he was probably poor,” she said.

“I was thinking about not pressing charges, but the more I got to thinking about that, I realized that’s not responsible on my part. He had injured me and really had injured society as a whole. He’s a man and should be out on the streets protecting women and children and not violating women,” she said.

When Sr. Mary Jo and Deacon Majors met with the district attorney on Monday morning — three days after the crime — she pressed charges, but asked for leniency for the perpetrators. She also learned that her feelings of justice, accompanied by restitution to society, had a name: restorative justice.

In the months that followed, Fernandez and Sr. Mary Jo followed a path of restorative justice, leading to Fernandez’ signing of the pledge of nonviolence.

Restorative justice not easier for offender

Restorative justice, explained Sr. Mary Jo, is not easier for the offender. Rather, restorative justice calls for a person to be responsible for what he or she has done and make life changes. “To go to prison can cause anger to fester and anger leads to violence so we have recidivism,” she explained.

Fernandez agreed to a contract drawn up by Sr. Mary Jo outlining steps he must take to avoid a long prison sentence. Believing imprisonment alone would not change Fernandez’ behavior, Sr. Mary Jo asked for a program that included rehabilitation.

While Judge David A. Hansher was skeptical, he reluctantly agreed to the program, ordering Fernandez to serve one year at the House of Correction and four years of probation. The program included drug and alcohol rehabilitation, commitment to a community support programs offered by the United Community Center and job training. Fernandez also had to participate in an eight-step program devised by Jim McGinnis, founder of the St. Louis Peace and Justice Institute, which included the prisoner’s pledge of nonviolence.

Sr. Mary Jo asked to administer the program to Fernandez, a process she now describes as healing for her, too.

Twice a month for eight months, the petite, white haired nun went to the House of Correction in Franklin and met with Fernandez in a little room off the facility’s chapel. Rev. Ruckman, a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, was also present.

Through the sessions, Sr. Mary Jo discovered Fernandez to be a talented artist, sensitive father of two who wanted desperately to turn his life around.

During the 60 to 90 minute sessions, they reflected on McGinnis’s book, “A Call to Peace,” writings by former gang member, Tookie Williams and looked at nonviolent alternatives in the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez.

Change in Fernandez evident

As the weeks passed, Sr. Mary Jo saw a change in Fernandez as “his mind cleared of the drugs and alcohol and a talent was unveiled. I could see he really was wanting to make a change,” she said.

The change in Fernandez was also noticeable to Rev. Ruckman.

“What a difference. I’ve watched it. I know there is a significant positive change in him, in the way he talks. I see a sense of maturity in how he writes, the smile on his face. All these things come together,” he said.

Fernandez admitted he is not the same person who accosted Sr. Mary Jo on the darkened street just over a year ago.

“It felt good opening myself up, sharing myself with Sr. Mary Jo,” he said, adding he learned to forgive those in his life who had harmed him and “I hope I can get forgiveness for what I have done.”

When he learned it was a religious sister he had carjacked and threatened, Fernandez said, “I was really freaked out.” Sr. Mary Jo said the district attorney told her that when Fernandez was told he had carjacked a nun, he broke down and cried.

While Fernandez described his time in jail as hell, he also looks upon it as a blessing.

“A lot of people wish they could get this gift,” he said of the restorative justice process. “I was very lucky. God put me in here and gave me a second chance and I know I have to be positive.

“Sr. Mary Jo had forgiven me and is trying to help me out. I said to myself, ‘I owe her for what I have done.’ She is my angel,” he said.

Following the reading of the pledge of nonviolence where Fernandez promised to build a better world one person at a time, starting with myself, “no more victims and no more violence,” his support team offered encouragement.

Lerman, director of the Community Conferencing Program launched in 2000 by the Milwaukee County district attorney’s office, was present as a support, but not in an official capacity. He said he was heartened to see the two working toward restorative justice. “It really is a thrill for me to be a part of this,” he said.

Judge’s harsh words serve as inspiration

Ferrnandez said his biggest fear upon leaving the jail is not that he will return to his former life of violence.

“I feel very powerful inside myself to stay away from those things,” he said. “My biggest fear is people getting shot. Anything can happen like what happened in (South Shore Park on Memorial Day) I worry that something can happen to my children,” he said of Xavier, almost 3; and Vivianni, 1.

At the sentencing for Fernandez last fall, Judge Hansher had harsh words for Fernandez when he agreed to the restorative justice program He told him unlike Sr. Mary Jo, he had no hope for him.

“I take those words as a threat. If I go down one more time, I’m locked out of my kids’ lives. If I want to see my children and be part of their lives, the drugs have got to stop; the criminal conduct, the criminal thinking has got to stop. The challenge is out there for me,” he admitted.

He said he’s counting down the days when he can send Judge Hansher a letter proving him wrong, showing he turned away from crime and violence and that with Sr. Mary Jo’s compassionate intervention his life has turned around.

Seven days after the signing Fernandez left the House of Correction and was incarcerated at the Ozaukee County Jail where he will serve two months, part of his sentence after being apprehended there. Sr. Mary Jo plans to continue to meet with him biweekly and is also working outside the jail walls to prepare for his release. She and members of Franciscan Peacemakers are helping Fernandez and his family find housing in a safer neighborhood away from the temptations of his former life. He plans to return to his job as a mechanic and wants to connect with a Catholic parish.

He and Sr. Mary Jo have plans, with the help of Capuchin Fr. Bob Wheelock to write a book. He’d also like to serve as a peer mentor to other inmates.
When Fernandez and Sr. Mary Jo parted at the House of Correction after the signing of the pledge, Fernandez whispered to Sr. Mary Jo, “I love you, Sister, because you believed in me.”

Those words meant the world to Sr. Mary Jo, but she said they also serve as a reminder that as McGinnis told her months ago, “You can’t drop this man, Sister, it’s really crucial that you continue to walk with him and you also need to put him in touch with an effective support system.”