21 October 2008

It Had to Happen

Okay, God. I get it. I work in a prison with all sorts of people who have done all sorts of things. I listen intently to the stories, even the ones that begin with "I didn't do it."

But tonight, I have my own story.

I was headed to Seattle this morning for two days of classes. My carpool buddy showed up at 6:30am so we could get on the road for the 8am class. I grabbed up my bags and books and we were out the door. So far, so good.

There's a small parking lot in front of my building, six slots. I'm #1. The #1 slot was empty. (You saw this coming, didn't you?) I looked out onto the street where several silver-colored cars were parked. None of them was my 2004 Toyota Corolla.

I went back inside and called the police. Because the police didn't get there before we had to get on the road, I cancelled the call and went to school in my buddy's car. (She has a 14-year-old Toyota. Go figure.)

I told the people in class about my car. Another woman talked about the fire at her workplace over the weekend. And a man shared the news that his wife had accepted a job in Maine and they were going to try the bi-coastal thing for a while.

When we got home at 6 tonight, I was entertaining thoughts that the thief might have had a change of heart and put my car back in its place. No such luck. So the policeman has been here-- he looked 12 but was wearing a wedding ring.

He asked about identifying marks on the car. Crunch marks on the right front panel, from the day I was moving out of the house where I'd lived for 17 years and for the first time ever, I angled the car out of the garage too sharply.

I told him my Department of Corrections ID badge was in the car. His eyebrows went up. I told him the prison where I worked. Then he wanted to know if there were any weapons in the car? A bullet-proof vest?

"I'm a chaplain," I said. "I don't use that kind of equipment." And no, it's not used to access anything. My face has to match the picture or they won't let me in. (While the badge is missing, I have to show my driver's license, then I get to wear a temporary badge--if I'm lucky, it's #1.)

He gave me a card with all the important information to relay to the insurance company. I started making a list of what's in the car that I'm really missing:

--My last can of diet Pepsi.

--My handicapped parking placard, which just cost me a $250 ticket because I forgot to hang it when I was at the bookstore a few weeks ago.

--The back seat was loaded with boxes of books headed to the prison from a local library book sale.

--Some CDs.

Everything else was just stuff.

When I go to work on Sunday, I'll put the word out that my car is missing. I'm sure someone knows someone who knows someone else who knows where my car might be.

Or maybe it will just show up again.

Like that's going to happen!

15 October 2008

The Things I Hear

My first summer at the prison, I walked out to one of the units to check on someone. The units are all one-story concrete and rebar ugly buildings, painted with a god-awful not quite teal trim. (Someone got a GREAT deal back in the 70s, I'm convinced.) Walking up the sidewalk, you can't see into the cells because the windows are covered with decorative brick, but those inside can see out.

So I was on my merry way, looking at the scenery (not much) and rehearsing in my head who it was I needed to see. Suddenly, I heard a long wolf whistle followed by, "Yo, Mama! Where you been all my life?"

Another voice scolded, "Shut up! That's the chaplain!"

A chastised voice replied, "Sorry, ma'am." I tried not to laugh.

Lately I've had to tell far too many people that someone is sick and in the hospital, or that someone has died. I can't just go and hang out in any of the units because as soon as I show up, the word goes out, "Uh oh. The chaplain's here. Who died?"

As a chaplain, I've heard a lot of stories, many of them beginning with, "I didn't do what I'm in here for." It's not my job to judge the truth of that. I have to go with the fact that everyone here either agreed to a plea or was convicted of a crime. We go forward from there.

But I hear all sorts of stories: about a man molested and raped by his camp counselor when he was ten; about the guy who attacked the man who had raped his daughter; about the family that seems to have moved and left no forwarding address. Those stories go on and on.

And then there are the good stories: pictures of a new baby or grandbaby; celebrating a GED--the first success with schoolwork in more than 15 years; getting two brothers together who hadn't seen each other in more than four years (and one of them said, "I haven't been to the chapel in all the time I've been here. Why did I come in here today?"); the man getting interviewed by a team of people who are willing to help him restart his life in society.

I hear confessions of all sorts, get asked marriage advice, give Prison 101 talks at least six times a week, and get to accompany people on their journey to discover who is God now that everything has fallen apart.

I wouldn't trade it for the world.

Though I must admit, I could use a good wolf whistle now and then.

04 October 2008

Feast of St. Francis

"Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words."

That's a line often attributed to Francis of Assisi, though I don't have the time to look it up to see if he actually said it. There are many things attributed to Francis, like the famous "Lord, make me an instrument of your peace" prayer that he didn't write. But the quote is a good one, nonetheless. I am often prone to saying that our lives may be the only gospel some people will ever read.

My favorite cross is the one that spoke to Francis at the little church of San Damiano, just outside of Assisi. "Go and rebuild my church, which you can see is falling into ruins." Frenchy took that literally and went out collecting stones and started his home improvement project. He also took some of his father's bolts of fabric, sold them, and used the money. This did not make the old man happy. Dad hauled his son into the bishop's courtyard and demanded that the bishop make his son behave, to honor his father as the commandment said.

Francis stripped off his clothes and declared, "From this moment on, Pietro di Bernadone is not my father. I say instead, 'My father who art in heaven.'" The bishop had someone throw his cloak around the naked guy and Dad went home in a huff. From the stories written about Francis, one is missing: he apparently never reconciled with his father.

That part of the story makes me think of the inmates tonight, many who are estranged from their families, from their communities, from themselves. Maybe there is a bit of hope along with the sadness. Francis went on to do some amazing things, cajoling people to fall in love with God who is infinitely patient and merciful.

I have a poster of the San Damiano cross hanging in my office. It's big enough to see all the detail, even the rooster at Jesus' left knee. It captivates men who sit in my office for any length of time. They probably aren't aware that the Jesus on that cross is risen, that behind his arms you can see the two angels at the empty tomb, that cloud of witnesses above him, and those tiny people? His enemies.

Isn't that much of the truth of our lives? There is a great deal going on and all sorts of people around us. The fundamental truth is that we are beloved children of God and the sobering truth is that each of us is capable of great evil. This cross gives me hope, but the story of Francis does so even more.

When I was 20 and going to school in Rome, one of our professors took us for a long weekend to Assisi. Francis became a real person that weekend, someone who partied all over that lovely city, prayed in its churches, and desperately wanted to be like Jesus. He wasn't perfect. He was a bit eccentric. He lived in a time of war--suddenly the crusades weren't just dates in the history book--they were a real cause! And he was a poet. He made being a Christian possible in ways that other saints never quite moved me.

Here's another quote, one I've never seen on a poster or a bumper sticker. Francis wrote it in a letter of advice to a minister of the Little Brothers: "There should be no friar in the whole world who has fallen into sin, no matter how far he has fallen, who will ever fail to find your forgiveness for the asking, if he will only look in your eyes. ... And should he appear before you again a thousand times, you should love him more than you love me, so that you may draw him to God."

May God bless you and keep you.

May God's face shine on you and be gracious to you.

May God look on you kindly and give you peace.