27 February 2007

This Is the Part

This poem came out of a conversation I had with a man last summer. The woman who'd raised him had just died. Usually those talks are brief: a description of the relationship, a bit about what will happen for the funeral, regret at not being there. This was different. A life story spilled out and I listened. A few hours after he left my office, I wrote this poem. It's an entry here today because I just got news that it is published in this week's National Catholic Reporter. I am thrilled. I've shared this poem with friends who are in ministry of all kinds because listening is what we do most often.

This Is the Part

This is the part where
I shove aside what was urgent
five minutes ago.
Whatever it was, it can wait
because this person
in front of me
my attention
I take a deep breath

This is the part where
I check the box of tissue
and close the door
and make myself still

This is the part where
I listen
to words
sounds caught in the throat
the long-ago child
who doesn’t have words

This is the part where
there are no words
I hold
like a bird
that will shatter
with the cold

We breathe
as if we’re just learning
at a time

This is the part where
I say, You will live
You will not die from this

This is the part where
I let go
No magic words
No lasting touch

This is the part where
I trust what has happened
between us
through us
and then let go

This is the part where
I have no part.

Shannon O'Donnell

Wellness Check

Chaplains get to do all sorts of things. Today was filled with a thousand different tasks, but the best one came near the end of the day.

There'd been a long line outside my door since one o'clock, close to 100 people were in the chapel, and most of them were waiting for a composition book. Someone could make real money with a stand that stocked only composition books. Any place to put down your personal thoughts--what a gift.

While the noise level rose, the phone rang. I couldn't answer, so it went to voicemail. Another 15 or 20 people came through my office. Then the phone rang again. The woman on the phone was concerned about her son. He'd been calling every day, but no one had heard from him for three or four days. Could I please find out if he was okay? I told her I'd call her back.

I called his unit and asked the officer to check him out. "See if he's upright and breathing. His mom is worried." The unit was busy with showers, and, as it turned out, the officer forgot.

After four, with the units locked down for count, I went out to tell one man that his mom had had a heart attack, and to check on the one who hadn't called his mother.

His cell was at the very end of a tier. Fifteen cells, three men to a cell these days. We're very crowded. The third man is sleeping on a mat on the floor.

"I'm looking for Nathan," I said to the guys in A-15. A young, slender man got off the bunk. I introduced myself and said, "I'm doing a wellness check. Your mother called."

He looked sheepish. "Because I haven't called?"

"Yep. You don't call your mom, the chaplain will come looking for you." We laughed.

"Tell her I'm okay." I nodded.

Back in my office, I related the conversation to his mother. "But he's okay? He looks okay?" He does. He'll call, probably tomorrow during his gym time when he has access to a phone.

Wellness checks work both ways, usually an offender stressing because he hasn't heard from his girlfriend/fiancee/wife/mother/grandmother in "ages and ages." Sometimes all it takes is a quick phone call and the tension level goes down. I count that as a small victory in keeping people safe in a place that can be emotionally unstable and occasionally violent. Sometimes it doesn't take much to accomplish a little peace.

12 February 2007

"I've got my nerds on"

He's a tall good-looking black man and he's pulling out a stack of typewritten paper, 130 pages of his life story. The tortoise-rimmed glasses don't usually sit on his face, so looking at him, I can only agree. He's got his nerds on.

That stack of paper is more than just his life story. He told me a few months ago that he has never before told the story of his arrest and what brought him to prison. For fifteen years, he has written about the incidents but has always couched the story in legal terms. Now he's just telling the story. It's taking a lot out of him. The effort shows.

Earlier today, he came into my office and said, "I need to write in your book." My book is full of names and dates, a record of those who have died who were related to the men in this prison. Lately the pages are filling too quickly. He wrote the name of his grandmother on an empty line and held the book on his lap for a few minutes. His grief filled the room.

05 February 2007

Where is everyone?

It's 9:45 on Monday morning and the chapel should be packed with men in orange jumpsuits, eager to get cards and address books. Instead, the workers are straightening chairs, emptying waste baskets, watering the plants. The windows in my office offer only a view of the overhang of the building, so I have to walk out into the chapel to check the weather. It's foggy, so foggy that I can't see the farthest building across the yard. (There have been foggier days. Once we couldn't even see the fence right outside our building.) The fog explains the silence. We are having "fog line" and people will move only on the hour and only if instructed.

No one will starve. Meal time will go on as planned, but movement to and from the dining hall is almost all within fences, no chance for anyone to go missing while headed from Point A to Point B. Knowing where everyone is at any given time is a priority within a prison. There are all sorts of ways of keeping track: callouts (the alphabetical list of appointments to school, chapel, medical, legal mail), passes (made out in duplicate), phone calls, the computer. Every now and then, it gets complicated.

The other day, I checked to see where an offender was working so I could get him to my office. The computer said he was on the paint crew. No one answered the phone in the maintenance office. I finally called the man's unit and asked an officer to track him down. When the man showed up in my office half an hour later, his forehead bore the distinctive elastic mark of a kitchen worker (those funny hats they have to wear to cover their hair in the kitchen--even if they're bald!). The computer hadn't been updated to show his new workplace.

So where is everyone? Today the answer is simple: unless he's working, every man is in his cell, locked down for the duration. And me? I'm getting paperwork done, trying to weed through the stacks on my desk. It gives me a chance to pray for the guys who've just come in (they're the yellow Religious Preference forms waiting to be filed), for the ones who are thinking about release (they are the purple and white questionnaires who need to be scheduled for a session in the chapel), for the families (that's the set of phone calls on my notepad), for the other chaplains (the email I need to answer and the notes to a meeting I need to type up), for those who pray for us (the basket filling up with prayers). Lots to do. It's Monday and it's quiet.

03 February 2007

Chaplain or Social Worker

No two ways about it. A lot of my work is social work. I get people connected to resources, find the address to their local Social Security office, encourage men to get connected with their child support. That falls into my chaplain job.

Twice a month, I volunteer at a local domestic violence center. I'm there as a chaplain, to talk to the women and kids who access the resources there, to offer spiritual support. I also have access to a small fund of money for emergency housing. So far, my chaplain services have been put to use only a few times. By Friday afternoon, most people have found what they need for the weekend. But a couple of times in the last few months, there have been those housing calls.

I've discovered something crucial. I make a lousy social worker.

My sister and I were talking this morning when I had this revelation. I'm an easy touch. I'd be hauling out my credit card, making reservations at the local Motel 6 based on any good story someone told me.

I'm not that way in the prison. In the prison, I can spot the difference between truth and bs quickly. I told my sister that this may be because the guys aren't going anywhere. They have to deal with me on the spot. Those folks who call the domestic violence office--I can only hear their voices and not see their eyes. And I fall for the stories every time.

I suppose part of the problem is that I take what I'm told at face value. And that I've told some terrific lies in my own life. Like the time I told my third grade teacher that my brother Geoff had died. Granted, he was in the hospital and very sick, but only his death would score enough points so that Sr. Terrence would pray for him, out loud, right before class. And then when my parents asked about it, I claimed she must have gotten me mixed up with one of the other forty-nine students in my class. I was in third grade. What did I know? I attended the only Catholic school in the only Catholic parish in town. Why would anyone pay attention to the funeral schedule? Yep. That was my thinking.

I've been a chaplain for almost 8 years now, with more than 20 years before that in high school and parish settings. Maybe I'll learn one of these days. But I don't think it's going to be this week.