Every month, hundreds of ex-offenders return to neighborhoods throughout the New Orleans area. People involved in their re-entry will gather for a conference Friday at St. Genevieve Catholic Church in Slidell.

The annual Symposium for Systemic Change will be hosted by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at St. Genevieve’s, 58203 La. 433, Slidell.

The focus for this year’s symposium is to bring together people involved in ministries, organizations and agencies that assist in the re-entry of ex-offenders into society.

Featured speakers will include Paul Graham, St. Vincent de Paul National Re-Entry Project director; Rhett Covington, of the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections; U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite, of New Orleans; and Archbishop Gregory Aymond.

“The goal of the symposium is to bring together people working to effect changes in the problem of mass incarceration,” said Angela Wattler, president of the St. TammanyWashington Parish Society of St. Vincent de Paul District Council.

The general session will address the topic of organizing for systemic change. There will be a choice of panel discussions on “Laity and Prison Ministry,” “Re-entry Strategies for Returning Citizens” and “Strengthening Incarcerated Families.”

Wattler, a member of St. Peter Catholic Church in Covington, said there are St. Vincent de Paul ministries serving the poor at St. Peter, St. Genevieve, St. Jane de Chantel in Abita Springs, and Mary Queen of Peace and Our Lady of the Lake in Mandeville.

Families come to them seeking help with rent, utilities, medicine and more. She said they find that often, “we are serving people with family members in prison or who are having a hard time finding a job because they have a prison record.”

The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, and Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation. But still, people might not think that’s an issue in St. Tammany, she said.

“A lot of people ignore the fact of what’s going on in this parish. So until it affects them directly, they don’t pay attention to it. But it’s there,” she said.

Tom Costanza, division director of Catholic Charities’ Office of Justice and Peace, said the symposium was held last year in Luling. This is the first time it’s been held on the north shore.

Catholic Charities has a long history of working with what he calls “returning citizens.” Among the services are the Cornerstone Builders program, which provides two bus trips per month for families to visit with those in correctional facilities such as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the Rayburn Correctional Center. Cornerstone also provides mentors for children who have a parent in prison.

Through the Re-Entry 72 initiative, Cornerstone counsels inmates within the prison. When they are released, it provides housing and work to help them get re-established in the community.

“The help they can give the returning citizen in the first 72 hours is key to reducing recidivism,” Costanza said.

Deacon Rudy Rayfield, executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said that at the heart of the call for systemic change is the belief that providing a pastoral approach to the ex-offender is a key element of human development. It’s the inner conversion of those providing works of charity and those they serve that will bring about change, Rayfield said. By becoming “servant leaders,” he said, the ex-offender can become an advocate for change.

Rayfield said Pope Francis and the Catholic bishops have spoken out about mass incarceration.

“Jesus was considered a criminal; he was on a cross between two criminals,” Rayfield said. It’s seeing the ex-offender in the context of family and community that “is an integral approach that undergirds any systemic change effort.”

“It’s about how do we talk to each other, how do we care in a Christ-like manner?”

Aymond will commission a group organized to “advocate for these returning citizens” at the conclusion of the symposium, Rayfield said.

Other speakers will include Susan Lindsey, assistant to Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman and re-entry program administrator; Rob Tasmin, associate director with the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops; the Rev. Christian Reuter, prison ministry coordinator with the Diocese of Belleville, Illinois; and John Messenheimer, director of prison ministry with the Archdiocese of New Orleans.

Auxiliary Bishop Ferdinand Cheri will celebrate a pre-symposium Mass at 8 a.m.

To register, contact Wattler at (985) 966-3846 or email systemicchangesymposium@gmail.com. To contact the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, email Rayfield at svdped@bellsouth.net.