Jail chaplain Martin Schurr works with inmates as part of his work with St. Vincent de Paul’s Restorative Justice Ministry.
Helping to heal those incarcerated, their families and others affected by crime is all in a day’s work for St. Vincent de Paul’s Head Jail Chaplain Martin Schurr, but nonprofits haven’t always been his line of work.
Schurr, who has been with the Catholic service organization for 14 years, worked in the corporate world for 20 years before going to St. Vincent de Paul and ultimately helped lead the organization’s Restorative Justice Ministry group that works to heal both the victim and offender, to regain the trust of the community. More than 50 volunteers offered pastoral care in San Mateo County to 3,400 incarcerated men, women and youth, their families and those affected by crime. After-care assistance is provided for those recently released from incarceration as well.
“I left a six-figure job with bonuses and cars and traveling the world on someone else’s dime,” said Schurr, 53. “I had a good life.”
Schurr, who is married and has two sons, began to volunteer for St. Vincent de Paul. A St. Vincent de Paul parishioner told him he’d be a great person to replace him.
“I laughed and said, ‘oh yeah, I’m going to leave what I’ve got to go to a nonprofit,’” he said. “They called and I applied [to work at St. Vincent de Paul]. I hadn’t worked anywhere else in my adult life.”
He worked hard at his job as a sales manager at an import and export company and was making a lot, but he realized the work was killing him. At the same time, he came to enjoy hearing St. Vincent de Paul’s jail chaplain, Paul Moriarty, offer words of wisdom every week.
“I realized through him that’s what I wanted to do,” Schurr said. “I wanted to work with my heart.”
When Moriarty died of cancer 12 years ago, Schurr was heartbroken, but stepped up to take the role. Now, in his work as jail chaplain at San Quentin State Prison and at the local county jails, Schurr said he works to make a whole situation out of a broken one.
“It’s truly a safety net for San Mateo County,” Schurr said.
Addiction, and the brokenness of that, is the biggest struggle for inmates with whom he works, said Schurr, who was recently ordained.
“They’re tentacles that reach very far,” he said Monday. “On a perfect day, those can be repaired. This weekend a person died from a relapse and I had to talk with the mother. When people have a need [the job is] not 9-5.”
Daly City roots
Growing up in Daly City, he had little, so his family shopped at St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift shop. He didn’t have the perspective it was out of necessity until he studied business at San Francisco State University and his friend was aghast that people wore these clothes.
“I came to realize that was a blessing because I never forgot where I came from,” he said. “The first day in the jail, I knew somebody on every floor from my neighborhood. I’m a late comer — it hit me, ‘this was your neighborhood.’ We didn’t breed doctors and lawyers. We bred thieves and that was usually because of addiction.”
Prior to coming to St. Vincent de Paul, Schurr volunteered at a soup kitchen in San Francisco.
“I was working with this population unbeknownst to me,” he said. “I know what personal struggle and suffering is. I learned early on I had flaws I needed to work on.”
Coming from a dysfunctional family, Schurr found trouble during his junior year at Jefferson High School. He found a final exam for one of his classes and tore it up, landing him in the dean’s office.
“The dean said, ‘I can suspend you or you can do the 4-4 plan,” Schurr said. “Go to school for four hours a day and work for four hours a day. In that job, I met a man who fundamentally changed my life forever because I was heading to where I work.”
Finding a mentor
The man, John, was very kind to Schurr.
“I thought he wanted something,” Schurr said. “He never did. Eight months in, the owner’s son yelled at John. Yelling was communication in my house, but something inside of me snapped. I wanted to hurt him (the owner’s son) and I asked John, ‘do you want me to hurt him?’”
Schurr was caught off guard when John told him to pray for the warehouse owner’s son, who he said was under a lot of pressure.
“I was pissed, but he was probably the only man in my life I respected,” he said. “I tossed and turned all that night and thought, ‘John’s right.’ I asked him, ‘why are you so nice to everyone?’ He said he was nice to everyone because of his religion.”
At age 16, Schurr thought he might have to quit the job because he thought it would get weird with John because of John’s disclosure about being religious.
“I decided that I was going to become Catholic that day,” Schurr said.
As a child, Schurr had gone to church, but he said he would just go so he wouldn’t get hit.
“I equated that (going to church) with getting hit,” he said. “I really started going and listening and paying attention.”
John and Schurr remained friends for 30 years until John died. After spending years trying to find John’s grave, Schurr finally discovered it two years after his death. The veterans group had taken his body since he served as a medic in World War II, during which he earned a Purple Heart.
“He never talked about it,” Schurr said. “I thought, ‘you’re still teaching me humility and you’re gone.’ I’d hope one day I’d have that.”
Those at St. Vincent de Paul have good things to say about Schurr.
“What I like about Deacon Marty is that he really gets that life is about ‘acting justly, loving tenderly and walking humbly with your God’ Micah 6,” Executive Director Lorraine Moriarty wrote in an email. “In all aspects of St. Vincent de Paul Restorative Justice Ministry, Marty, in caring and often humorous ways, provides a ministry of honest accompaniment. His is a hope-filled presence to those often despairing. This makes a difference in their lives and because his life is about doing good for the Lord this makes him good to be around!”
Schurr himself loves the work.
“It’s fulfilling,” he said. “It’s an hour to walk with somebody and be a part of their struggle and trying to help. Their gift is their courage to try and change. It’s very difficult for any of us to change; it feels that way.”
It’s hard to describe what it’s like to work with those who are suffering, he said.
“It’s like a hospice worker trying to explain what it’s like to be with someone who is dying,” he said. “I don’t have many hard days.”
He tries not to bring his work home with him, but at times it is difficult, especially when he was contacted last weekend by the mother whose daughter had died.
“There’s no words to comfort someone in that state,” he said. “The people I walk with help me. I owe them a great debt. … Sometimes our humanity is all we can be. I trust just being present is sometimes enough.”
St. Vincent de Paul is a phenomenal asset to those in need, he said.
“It’s an honor to work here,” Schurr said. “Few nonprofits have full-time restorative justice programs.”
For more on St. Vincent de Paul go to svdp-sanmateoco.org.
(650) 344-5200 ext. 105