30 August 2007

From a Distance

I'm on vacation and away from prison this week. I still have access to my work email, and to voicemail. I've resisted checking on the voicemail. I'll be back on Sunday and able to call people then. But email? It's hard to resist.

The administration puts out a daily bulletin, so I can keep track of what's being offered in the staff dining room (baked chicken today) and how many inmates are housed at the facility. That number is 1600 something today. And there was a short note about how well one of the units had packed up some inmates and shipped them out of state.

That was tough to see.

Because Washington state prisons are overcrowded, we farm out close to 1000 inmates to Minnesota and Arizona. Some don't mind a change of scenery and volunteer to go, but those are the rare cases.

The out of state prisons don't want any behavior problems, so it's well-behaved offenders who often go; they are the good workers, the ones who get family visits, ones working hard to make a difference and change their lives. Ouch.

Every now and then, I get a letter from someone who has been sent out of state. There are no programs to do, no work to be had, it's very cold in Minnesota in the winter and frying hot in Arizona in the summer. For men who were immersed in good programs, to sit and do nothing is a waste of their time and our tax dollars.

I have a fantasy of going on the road to visit the WA inmates in their out of state prisons. I could spend a couple of days, do some spiritual counseling, maybe have a worship service or two. I wonder if the state would pay for that. Probably not.

26 August 2007

The Kingdom of Heaven is like coming to prison

Hard on the heels of the musician quitting came today's reading. "Lord, are they few who are to be saved?" and the ambiguous answer, "Try to come in through the narrow gate. Many won't be strong enough." Uh huh. "Lord, open the door!" "Go away. I don't know where you're from!" "But you taught in our streets and we hung out at those great dinner parties."

And then this exquisite vision of people coming from all directions to recline at the feasting table.

I talked a bit about how we're always wanting to know that we're on the right track, with the right group. The question isn't really, "How many will be saved?" but rather, "I'm on the list, aren't I?" It's a good human question, but it's not relevant. Jesus draws on the rich prophetic tradition, like Isaiah in the first reading, recalling that the covenant with the Jewish people was not just for their good, but for blessing the whole world. By their lives and their faith, God of all the world would be known by the whole world. In Isaiah's vision, they'll all come streaming to Jerusalem.

What about those people standing outside, pounding on the door and claiming to be part of the entourage? Even though they know the name, "Lord," they do not know the person--because they aren't living what they've been taught. They have the head knowledge, but not the heart, not the life experience. "Go away. I don't know where you are from."

And then there is this moment: what IS the kingdom of God like? It's like coming to prison.

I got startled looks when I said that, even surprised myself, but follow me.

Before we came to prison, who did we imagine was in prison? A bunch of tattooed up bikers and gangbangers, lots of people with accents, people who'd been doing bad things for a very long time.

And then, we got to prison and maybe saw a guy across the gym, someone we'd known in high school. And there was someone we recognized from hanging out on weekends at the beach. And not everyone has a bad haircut and no teeth. There are lifers and short-timers here, teachers and mechanics. We've come from north and south, east and west. We're surprised to be here, and surprised by who we find here.

Jesus' stories kept turning things upside down. Maybe you have to be in prison to understand the richness of the surprise here.

The episode comes as Jesus is headed to Jerusalem. He knows where he is going and has a good idea about what will happen there. It's not much of a stretch to imagine that his good traveling buddies will bail on him, and here they are, asking if they are on the Saved list. What does it matter? What matters but hearing the Word and doing it?

22 August 2007

"I Quit"

I've heard these words before. They come from the same man who has quit his position in the music group that plays for both Catholic and Protestant services. He doesn't start out saying he's quitting, but that's what he does. And it's usually over some theological point.

What was it this time?

Apparently, it was a few things I said last Sunday in response to the readings.

It was a reading from Jeremiah--throw the man in the muddy well!--, and the bit from Hebrews about a "great cloud of witnesses," and that lovely piece from Luke about households being divided "two against three and three against two." In response to which we all said, "Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ!"

So what was the problem? First, I pointed out that Luke was describing what happened in his own time, that Christians were a very tiny minority and declaring oneself a Christian could have a disastrous effect on Dad's plan for a marriage-aged daughter, for instance. I went from there to persecution in our own day, and said that while we live in a society that is nominally Christian, Catholics are still likely to be hassled for their beliefs, especially in a prison setting.

Ted thought I was being divisive, making the contrasts between Catholics and other Christians too obvious. I told him I was reflecting the reality that Catholics experience in prison. He didn't get it.

Then he was upset that I seem to think that, in the end, almost everyone will make it to Heaven (or be saved, take your pick). His view of Scripture is that "it's very clear that only a few will be saved, and only those who claim Jesus as Lord."

I so wanted to ask, "Is your God that small?"

And then he was upset that I invited a roomful of Catholics and others to a one-hour presentation the next Saturday. A couple of Muslim volunteers are coming in to talk about the month of Ramadan, a time of fasting for Muslims, and other aspects of Muslim spirituality. Ted thought I was proselytizing and what would happen if a weak Christian went to that presentation and converted? He could acknowledge Muslims as fellow human beings, but they are not brothers to him. And as a DOC chaplain, I wasn't supposed to be proselytizing.

I pointed out to him that I'm not a DOC chaplain, but the Catholic chaplain, and that what I say in a church service can and does reflect the teachings of my church. He was adamant that "Allah" was the name of a moon god that the Muslims had chosen to worship. I countered with the information that an Arabic Old and New Testament used the word "Allah" for God because that is the Arabic word, that Arabic Christians use the word in their prayers. He didn't believe that.

I told him that my church prays for Muslims and all others who believe in one God, recognizes them with us as children of a common ancestor. He kept shaking his head.

He was "grieved," he told me for these things that divide us, and cannot continue to be a musician at Catholic services.

We have been through this before and I honestly do not want to fight about it. I've known Ted for a number of years and we seem to weather this storm and still like each other. He worries about me taking it personally and getting my feelings hurt. I bite my tongue and don't say, "Honey, you aren't that powerful."

And what do you suppose the readings are for the coming weekend? The gospel includes the line, "Lord, will there be only a few saved?"

20 August 2007

Let There Be Music

Last Friday night, two poet-musicians "following in the footsteps of Johnny Cash" came to prison for a concert. I met Daniel and Chuck at a poetry reading in Tacoma originally. They were thrilled to have a chance at a new audience and their audience was enchanted.

We often have Christian/church groups come in, either for Sunday services or for a special evening performance. We've discovered that the groups often share the same repetoire and variety isn't much of a virtue. Maybe that's why Daniel and Chuck's time with us was so different. They sang original songs, for the most part, about falling in love, making mistakes, learning to be wrong. Daniel sang about the time his former wife and two-year-old son moved from Tennessee to Alaska and how he'd moved to Seattle to be closer. A man sitting a few feet away from me doubled over and cried. Too many men here know the pain of being separated from their children.

It was a grace-filled, hope-filled evening, all we could have wished for.

And it was just Part One. Daniel and Chuck will be back in a few months to host an Open Mike night and the offenders will get to showcase some of their own writing then.