07 October 2014

Putting Up with Grace

If things had gone the way you planned,
 you wouldn't be here
asking big questions
shaking your head
     in wonder
baffled by forgiveness
stumped by grace.

That June day held no light for you.
Everything was dark
--the sky
--your mood
--your intentions
"They kept telling me I was going to hell,"
you said about the voices
that took up room in your brain.
"If I was going to hell,
I was going to take everyone with me."

The labyrinth was in total eclipse
no light around the edges.
It all made sense
in some parallel universe.

You plotted
and planned
dragged your pen across pages
in your journal.
The God who hounded you
who made lists of your failings
who screamed disappointment,
That God was hell-bent,
redemption not a possibility.

You organized thoughts and ammunition.
How to create the most hurt?
What will cause the most damage?
It was a problem of logic
a puzzle.

If things had gone as you planned
you would have died
it would all be over
or so you thought

Someone died that day.
People got hurt.
Life changed in profound ways
and here is the most telling sign:
you are here.

Wrestling with images of a god too small
--a god to be manipulated
--a god to be shunned
If this is god, and I am like that god
is it any surprise
that madness leads to death?

You have met tenderness
in notes that hold out forgiveness
and refuse to sede you
as a monster
as devil-incarnate
You can ask about the width of mercy
because others say, "I see you."
You can imagine a larger world
--unseen before this
almost visible still
and in it room for you
and the man you killed 
and the people you hurt
and the God who keeps making room
no matter what
Who keeps on insisting
"You are my beloved."

Your plans went awry.
The path of grace is never straight.
Sometimes we have to put up with grace
--unruly, chaotic, definitely not rational
Instead of dragging other with you
into hell
you are caught in the tsunami
that is grace.

You may think you're drowning
that you will never survive
but you can, you will.
You are here.

28 September 2014

One more reason to live

He's tried suicide since he came to the jail a few months ago. He's not proud of it, wouldn't do it now.

We talked about other things, books he's been reading, contact with family and friends. 

Before we parted, I asked if he would talk with someone if he was thinking of suicide again. He agreed. 

"Besides," I said, "you still have books four and five of the Game of Thrones to read. You can't die in the middle of the story."  

His eyes widened and then he laughed.

23 July 2014

Am I Cut Off?

            I met him on Tuesday. By then I thought he’d seen plenty of people in uniform: police, corrections officers, medical staff, as well as lawyers in suits. He was in a solitary cell on the seventh floor. The cell was in a corner at the end of the wing. No casual traffic passed by his door and the window in his door looked out to a blank wall. He wore a quilted green blanket/wrap. It couldn’t be torn into strips or folded into a noose. A chart taped to the doorway gained a new set of initials every fifteen minutes. He was on suicide watch.
            I knocked on the window and woke him. His eyes were blank, but he focused on my face. “I’m a chaplain,” I said by way of introduction. “I just wanted to see how you’re doing.” He nodded but didn’t say anything. I asked if he wanted anything from the chaplain’s office. He barely shook his head. He looked more stunned than anything. “I’ll come back and check in with you.” He went back to his mattress and lay down. He’d been to court that morning to hear the initial charges against him. There were TV crews parked outside the jail, but he wouldn’t have seen them.
            He was still in that cell when I saw him again. He didn’t remember me. Our conversation was a repeat of the first one: I talked, he nodded. I said I’d come again. He went back to bed. The third time I stopped by, he’d been moved to another wing on the same floor. He still looked at a blank wall. The green quilted blanket/wrap was gone. He was dressed in a white jumpsuit. He was a little more engaged this time, said he was feeling okay, that his family had been to visit, but beyond that, he said little. “Is it okay if I come back?” He answered. “Yes.”
            Unlike most people I meet at the jail, I know what brought him here. The Thursday before I met him, my drive home was filled with news reports from a campus where a man had brought guns and rounds of ammunition and started shooting. Unlike many other recent shooters, he is alive. He wasn’t killed by a SWAT team. He didn’t have time to turn the gun on himself. A student pepper-sprayed him and held him down. He was arrested and he’s in jail. A man died and two other students were wounded.
            In the aftermath, there were some familiar events. There were several vigils at the campus. The local radio and TV stations went looking for comments everywhere they could. One station lined up an interview with a man who’d known the shooter years ago, when he worked at a gun range. But that’s where things began to happen differently.
            The man thought better of the interview, decided he had nothing to contribute to understanding the current events. He cancelled.
            The man who had interrupted the shooting declined to be interviewed. So did his family. Local area residents wanted to thank him, so they bought everything on the registry for his upcoming wedding and raised fifty thousand dollars for his new life. He asked that any donations be directed to the school.
            The school issued a few statements, but focused on their mission as a Christian school and spoke of compassion and community. Graduation happened the next week.
            Legal proceedings went on. Arraignment, lawyers making statements, the usual. Last Sunday there was an article in the paper detailing the accused man’s chaotic upbringing and mental health issues. The court of public opinion will have its say in the weeks and months to come. Yesterday, the seven pages of a journal were made public. It’s awful and scary writing. It can’t be ignored. Someone in the prosecutor’s office said, “We need to understand why people do these things.” News organizations are suing for 911 tapes and pictures from the crime scene to be released. The school and the victims are resisting that move. Why traumatize people all over again?
            On the maximum security floor, I met with the young man again. This time, we were able to sit at a table with plexi-glass between us instead of standing at the door to his cell trying to make ourselves heard and understood. “I’ve been reading Psalm 37,” he said. “‘All sinners will be destroyed; the wicked will be cut off.’ Am I cut off?”
            I hear the voice of Sr. Helen Prejean in my head. “Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done.” I say these words out loud. We will have many months to live into them.

06 July 2014

Eight Months and Counting

Bless me, friends, for I have sinned. It's been eight months since I last put anything on my blog.

Much has happened. Much is still the same.

What's the same:
     ---I'm still a jail chaplain
     ---working in downtown Seattle
     I still meet with men and women on the various floors who are somewhere along a timeline that will get them into court, to facetime with a judge and maybe a trial, to conviction or acquittal, to more time inside either at the jail or in prison, or else a ticket home.

     I carry tissues and scratch paper and a pen. Sometimes I forget the keys to my office (a pox on women's clothing designers who can't manage to put pockets on basic jeans or slacks!).

     I spend a lot of time waiting for elevators to take me where I need to go, and it's been four years since I've heard "You can't get there from here" when I ask for a floor. My first summer here, that was the constant refrain. Not all elevators go everywhere.

     I ride the bus most days, but drive when I have to pick up boxes of bibles or greeting cards to bring into the jail. The back seat of my car is in permanent disarray. Any thief is deterred by the markings on the boxes. BIBLES FOR JAIL.

     Conversations begun in elevators often start with, "Hey, you look familiar!" My standard response is, "How long since you were at Shelton?" That gets us to remembering that I used to work at the  prison, no I don't go there anymore, and maybe a bit of updating on what's gone on in this man's life since we last crossed paths.

     The stories are just as entertaining and heart-breaking as ever. The resilience and humor still shine.

So what changed?

     The greatest change is that my mother died last November. She was 83 and lived with Alzheimer's for at least fifteen years, the last ten at a care facility nearby. Mom's story was very separate from this blog, but much of the reason I do the chaplain job is because of her influence. She was never one to be limited by anyone. She always encouraged me to look beyond the teacher-nurse-secretary tracks that were available in the 60s and 70s. Her snarky sense of humor is why, when my (male) guidance counselor told me in 9th grade that I should take typing so I could put my husband through college, I told him, "IF I take typing, I'll be putting myself through college."

     Mom stopped talking several years ago, but before then, she wanted to hear stories about what happened on my job--much the same way I loved to hear her stories about working for California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing, enforcing civil rights laws. People have asked if I miss talking to her or getting a hug. I do, but I had to let go of those things more than five years ago. What we could both enjoy, all the way to the end, was good chocolate.  

      We had a grand family gathering and a memorial service that was so fitting. The work of tying up loose ends has kept the siblings busy in the mean time and "Gas money!" has a whole new meaning for me. I miss her.

     Yet, as Ted Kennedy said, "The work goes on." Back to stories, while I can still tell them, about the jail and the people I meet and the grace I find there.


18 November 2013

Learning to think differently

"Lock them up and throw away the key." I've heard that line too often, and it has been an overused refrain in the American system of corrections. Two recent articles would have us think differently, but it means we have to look beyond our own borders (and think outside the box!) to gain some new perspective.

Take a look here for a look at what's happening in Europe.

And what happens if you have a jail with no one to put in it? Look what Sweden is doing here.

I find these somewhat ironic because the jail in my town--bright spanking new--but whole sections of it aren't used. They can't afford to staff it, and a number of officers have been laid off due to budget cuts. The city doesn't even house its own people in there. Instead, it contracts with smaller and cheaper jails in the neighboring cities.

And then there's the brand new jail built on the Native American reservation that looks nice on the outside, but they don't have the funds to run it. What are people thinking??

01 November 2013

The Saints Among Us

On the eighth floor of the jail Tuesday, I met with a man. His wife had died last Saturday. He needed to talk. He was feeling bad about being in jail and away from her. 

Early in October, Dave and Olga came from Nanaimo in Canada to Seattle, on their way to Fort Lauderdale in Florida, to take a cruise in the Caribbean. It was a last fling. Olga had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. She was getting sicker. In fact, she had no control of her hands and arms. One last trip, they thought, then they’d face her final months together.

But in Seattle, Dave was arrested. Turned out there was a warrant for him out of Alabama, for breaking his probation almost thirty years ago. Dave went to jail. He was going to have to wait to see if Alabama wanted him.

Olga went to a local hospital. She wasn’t sick; she was managing the ALS, but without Dave, she didn’t have a caretaker and she did need care.

“All I know,” Dave said, “is that she got home. Someone escorted her to Victoria. Then she died at home with a friend with her.” He wanted to find out who had taken his wife to Canada. He knew it was someone from a local parish, but that was all.

I said I’d try to find out. With the name of the hospital, I started making calls. The chaplain didn’t answer, so I left a message.

A call to a woman who works in the diocesan Pastoral Care office pinned down the name of the parish close to the hospital. I called St. Francis of Assisi parish. I laughed when a long-time friend answered the phone. She works as the receptionist. I explained I was looking for someone from their parish who might have helped a woman get back to Canada.

She didn’t even let me finish my question.“That’s Frances!” Frances was over in the church with a funeral, but she’d call back.

When Frances called, she told me this:

At the hospital, a social worker spent two days on the phone, trying to figure out how to get Olga back home to Canada. Finally, Olga said, “I’m a Catholic. Maybe someone at a parish could help.” The social worker called the hospital chaplain. The hospital chaplain called the local parish, St. Francis of Assisi.

At the parish, Frances the Pastoral Care Minister answered the phone, and late on a Wednesday afternoon, arrangements were made. Frances met Olga at the hospital at 6am on Thursday and they boarded a cabulance with Olga’s luggage and wheelchair. To the waterfront and the Victoria Clipper they went. The cab driver helped haul the luggage to the ticket counter. The boat personnel said, “Don’t worry. Whatever you need, we’ll do it.” Frances and Olga got on the boat and went to Victoria. Along the way, Olga talked about the people in her life. “She was so upbeat about everything!” Frances said.

Once in Victoria, a friend met Olga at dockside, collected the luggage and the wheelchair and set off for Nanaimo. Before she said goodbye, Olga gave Frances one hundred dollars and insisted she have a good time in Victoria. Frances took a bus to see the Butchart Gardens and had tea at the Empress Hotel, something she had long wanted to do. She was back on the boat at 6pm and returned to Seattle. That was October 10th.

Frances had been wondering how Olga was, had told the story to a number of people. She’d explained that Olga couldn’t pick up a phone and call, and she certainly couldn’t write a letter. But Saturday, Frances thought she really should write Olga a letter.

She wanted to know, “How is Olga? Do you know?” 

“She died at home last Saturday,” I said.

“Well, I guess she got my letter then!”

Olga died at home two weeks after she’d returned from the interrupted trip. She never got her cruise, but she was with a friend and she died quickly. She and Dave had talked about the slow death that can be part of ALS.

That hundred dollars that Olga gave Frances? Frances brought it home. She knew a better place for the money. St. Francis of Assisi parish has a sister parish in El Salvador that is rebuilding its church. Nine thousand dollars is a lot of money in that country. Olga’s hundred dollars will go a long way and her name will be among those who helped in the effort.

Late in the afternoon, I talked with the hospital chaplain who told me about the efforts of the social worker at the hospital. "Can I tell them what happened with Olga? So often we don't know what happens to people when they leave our care, and everyone remembers her."

On Wednesday, I went to talk with Dave again, to tell him I’d found the woman who had helped his wife. He met me with a big smile. “Have you heard the news?” I hadn’t.

The Canadian consulate had been working on his case. He was being released in a few hours and headed back to Canada. He’ll have to come back for a hearing later in November, but he was heading home in time for Olga’s funeral.

I told him about Frances and the boat trip and the $100 and the parish in El Salvador.

Dave chuckled at the loops of connection: his Confirmation name is Francis. The woman who helped his wife was named Frances and worked at St. Francis of Assisi parish. Just how big a two by four does one need?

Dave and Frances will be in touch.

Olga’s name will be included among the names of the dead this weekend at the Seattle parish. 

Now you know the story. Isn’t it good to know there are saints among us?

11 September 2013

A rerun

Here's my 9/11 remembrance from a couple of years ago.

And the prayer of Fr. Mychal Judge, OFM, first casualty in NYC.

Lord, take me where you want me to go;
Let me meet who you want me to meet;
Tell me what you want me to say; and
Keep me out of your way. AMEN.