31 December 2009

A New Year

Less than an hour til the new year here on the West Coast. Not the new decade. I'm one of those sticklers who insist that counting begins with ONE, so the 20teens don't start til 2011. But I've been thinking about 1999 and what a great turn of the annual odometer that was. I loved watching the New Year's celebrations every hour from around the world. I spent a lot of time the last three months of 1999 dealing with Y2K, the computers will fail, planes will crash, and oh yeah, maybe the locks will be open at the prison that day.

Lots of New Years since then, more yet to come. And no, I'm not worried about 2012, though I suppose come the fall of 2012, I'll have to spend some time on it. That poor guy who was startled to find out Catholics, as a whole, don't believe in the rapture, he may have to come back to get another dose of reality then.

But I opened my work email tonight to find sad news. One of our long-term residents killed himself today. There's a memorial service to be done on Tuesday or Wednesday.

Another new year. Still the sadness and heartache, the unimaginable, the big questions. Still a place that needs some light. I go back to work on Sunday. What has God been up to while I was gone?

28 December 2009

Yoo hoo! We're ready! Where are you?

Eight in the morning and the ground is frosty. We move the altar away from the wall and into its celebration spot. Someone moves the pulpit and sets up the crib scene on a small table in front of it. Worship sheets are out and so are the song sheets (swiped from a Lutheran Bell Choir service that happened last week). New candles are lit, bread and wine on the altar. I even remembered the sacramentary and opened it to the appropriate page. All the readings have been claimed by volunteers. We are ready.

Almost. Even as the clock points to eight-fifteen, we are looking for Fr. Joe. He's not here yet.

The officer at the front desk calls the officer at the entrance to the prison: Any sign of Fr. Joe? Not yet.

The first rule of prison life, among many, be ready to punt.

So we sing the opening carol, "O Come, All Ye Faithful." We bless ourselves, pray the Gloria for the first time in weeks, and settle in for the readings. Fr. Joe will join us.

We listen through all the readings. I homilize. "Don't be afraid. Shepherds got the word first, not the governor, not the emperor, not the high priest. Shepherds. They were afraid, much like we are, afraid to believe that this grand message was for them." Then I tell them the story about Baby Jesus getting stolen from our manger scene a few years ago, and coming back to us with inked tattoos. They laugh at the story, but there is some keen recognition in their eyes: God became like us.

We pray. We exchange Peace. We share communion (thanks, St. Leo parish for being such a steady connection for us) and we go out singing, "Joy to the World."

Fr. Joe will celebrate Epiphany with us. We'll have a chance to be a bit counter-cultural. I'm betting the lights and trees will be down before next Sunday, but we'll still be celebrating Christmas. This is the feast I get to celebrate every day: the immense gift of human life that God chooses to inhabit.

24 December 2009

"We are as ready as we're going to get."

That was Fr. Jim at the beginning of the fourth Sunday of Advent Mass last Saturday night in my home parish. As soon as he said it I thought, "You're right!" and felt the worry and concern dissipate. No matter how much I prepare, comes a time to say, "Enough is enough."

This Advent, a purple cloth covered whatever table stood in for our altars: a typewriter table, a recycled table in a classroom, a steel dining table bolted to the floor with seats that do considerable damage to the unsuspecting knees. Four white French Vanilla candles in frosted glass holders brought new scents to each room. A strand of fake holly (nothing too pointed to be considered a weapon) was fashioned into a circle for three weeks and then straightened with the candles lined up across the table. We sang "O Come Emmanuel" in English and Spanish each week.

Everything is mobile, temporary. It can all be put away in a few minutes. Not unlike our lives.

The more permanent things: the heartbreak and longing in voices and on faces of men missing their kids, wishing they'd made other choices. There were last minute requests to be part of the Angel Tree Program (part of Prison Fellowship, they connect local churches with the children of incarcerated parents to provide presents for the kids). It's a great program, but it has become so popular that their deadline for signing up was September 1st, when many of the men I see today were still sitting in county jail waiting to go to court.

Today we logged the 104th death notification for 2009. Three of them came yesterday.

There were two Christmas plays presented by the men in one unit last Monday. Lots of laughter and cheerful faces as people left the chapel--and discovered we had some Christmas cards for them to include in letters home.

We Catholics will celebrate Christmas on our traditional day: the Sunday after Christmas, another chance to make the point that it really is a season, not a day.

"We are as ready as we're going to get," Fr. Jim said. "Now we just have to be ready to recognize Jesus however he comes to us." He comes to me in prison and I can't think of a better place to be.

Happy Christmas, everyone.

29 November 2009

Things You Don't Hear in the Parish Church

"Let's offer each other a sign of peace. No bruising!"

"And behold, the angels appeared, praising God and saying---MOVEMENT! MOVEMENT!"

(In the midst of some equisite quiet one evening) "Pill line!"

"No bruising?" I can see your head shaking from here. "What does that mean??"

The second service of my Sunday is held in the dining room of a unit that houses a number of gang members, Surenos to be exact. The other unit having a service at the same time houses Nortenos--but most of them have gone to gym.

The brotherhood of the gang is thick and at the Kiss of Peace, there are handshakes, hugs, and the Thumping of the Back. Thus the admonishment, "No bruising!"

Of course there are things I don't hear in my prison parish:
--cell phones ringing
--announcements about coffee and doughnuts available in the social hall

In both places, the deep hunger for belonging and connection exists. We are not so different.

28 November 2009

Hurry up and get here already!

I'm not one for patient waiting. It's not that I lack patience. Mostly I lack the ability to remember just what I'm waiting for. Life gets in the way. Things happen. I get distracted.

Right before Thanksgiving, I got a letter in the mail from Seattle University. Inside was a copy of the question I was asking in the fall of 2008 as I began a program in Pastoral Leadership. I read through it, wondered about the woman I was back then, and went on to the rest of the mail. The question: "What am I really hungering for?" Later that morphed into, "What if God isn't?" It wasn't a crisis of faith, just a question that had to be out on the table, under consideration.

You know my answer? Eh!

There were grieving people to comfort. There were celebrations with guys who passed a section of their GED. There were families to find. There were conspiracies and grade-school drama all year long. There was a job situation that ended up being so strange I'm still befuddled. Bottom line: there's still the rumbling activity of the Divine afoot in the world and I've got work to do.

Advent in prison--where waiting is an art form unto itself.

Some people sit in county jail, waiting to go to court. If convicted, they wait to be sentenced. Then they get sent to our place.

Once they arrive here, more waiting. At least everyone here has been convicted, or agreed to a plea. (I'm not saying everyone is actually guilty, but when they get off the bus, it's because there are orders from a judge back in the county saying the state has to take responsibility for them.)

Now a new kind of waiting: waiting to get tested and classified, waiting for the physical and dental exams, waiting for the psych eval and the school assessment. If he's in Unit 1 or 3, he's waiting to go to Unit 4 or 5. Waiting for mail. Waiting for a visit. Then waiting for an actual contact visit, but that has to wait til he's in another unit. Waiting for his access code to the phones. Waiting for the delivery from inmate store. Waiting for the Saturday movie, for the rain to stop so he can go to yard, for someone to get off the phone so he can try again to reach the phone that doesn't accept collect calls.

Mostly waiting to go to another institution, to get out of the grey or orange jumpsuits.

The holidays roll around and waiting gets physical. Fights happen more often, vicious words get said.

In church we talk about the reign of God and all anyone wants is a key to the front gate. Please.

It's easy to forget what we're waiting for. Too easy.

I don't believe in waiting for the reign of God. I think Jesus was right. It's already here. Maybe God's just waiting for me to notice.

07 November 2009

The Temptations Abound

I don't know if it's a result of working in prison or just the warped sense of humor I have, but the greatest temptation is look at my work and see blog titles.

For instance, Tuesday's gem was "Two Days, Three Dead Grandmas."

Not funny at all, especially to the three men who lost a grandmother in those two days, but the juxtaposition of events, and their similarities... my brain just went in that direction. It's partly a defense mechanism. Work with several people in crisis situations within a close period of time and the connections are blazingly clear some days. The twisted humor is one way to stay at arm's length from my own memories.

Breaking the news to a man that his grandmother has died does several things. First, there is the concern about how he'll take the news. Was he close to his grandma? Did she raise him when his parents wouldn't or couldn't? Did she support him through thick and thin or did she finally draw a line and tell him enough was enough? Were they estranged for years, but he'd written her a letter recently, pledging to remake his life so she'd be proud of him? Will he try to staunch the tears with his jumpsuit or will he get mad and start throwing things?

Meanwhile, the chaplain brain goes in several directions: memories of my own grandparents and the circumstances of their deaths, the imminence of death in general, the precariousness of life and how it intrudes on people living in prison who didn't imagine that death would touch them here. The practical questions rise up: was the death in state? Will he want to go to the funeral? Will the family want him there or will there be problems? Who is his counselor so I can get the paperwork started? Who is the unit supervisor so I can call with an update as soon as the man leaves my office?

Multi-tasking happens. It has to. I place the tissue box within reach without being obtrusive. I take notes as I listen to the conversation. I look up information on the computer and begin to draft a letter with death and funeral details to go to the counselor.

I try to extricate my own experiences from the front of my mouth and I just shut up. I ask a few questions when he is off the phone. I invite him to write his grandmother's name in the Book of Memories I keep on my desk.

And there are times, like last Tuesday, when my mind goes down that road and thinks, "Two Days, Three Dead Grandmothers. What a great title for a blog post." I whack myself up the side of the head and get back to the business of chaplaincy.

It's always a good marker for me, a sign on the road that I need to do something not related to prison work so that my perspective is more broad, a sign that I'm a bit too enmeshed in work that I love. If I'm seeing blog titles and not the people in front of me, it's time for me to do some soul-searching and brain-cleaning.

Or I need a good laugh.

30 October 2009

The Seasons Turn

It's the last week of October and I'm bracing myself. While we don't have to endure the onslaught of Halloween inside the prison, October 31st marks the serious beginning of the holiday season. Every year it's a bit different, but like it or not, here it comes.

Starting with Halloween, men start to get nostalgic about their kids. They want cards to send to them, they start talking about going trick or treating with them, they remember great costumes or antics of their own pasts. Some of it is true.

Not all of it is. Some of it is wishful thinking. A fair number are talking about kids who are now 7, 8, 9 whom they haven't seen since shortly after birth, if they were around for the event. Apart from a few pictures, they haven't been anywhere near that kid. They'd like to be. They should be, if they fit into the Righteous Daddy mode, but too often, it's wishful thinking.

And that's where it gets sad. As hard as we work to get ready to go back into the community, the reality is that there are bridges that got burned, roads that weren't taken, promises left empty, and there is no going back.

If Halloween is a bitter-sweet time, imagine the Thanksgiving spread, happy homecomings, presents under the tree, all those seasonal images with harsh edges around them. It's no wonder people retreat to their beds and pull the covers over their heads. I get it. I'm one of them.

On the other hand, Sunday we'll celebrate All Saints and that's a fine and wonderful feast day, a great one for someone with a Lint Trap Brain when it comes to knowing weird things about the saints. Sunday I'll tell the story about Sr. Marion, my fifth-grade teacher, who was the genius who told me to never mind the people who accused me of not having a "Christian" name, and encouraged me instead to become the first Saint Shannon.

I'm not there yet, but as St. Teresa of Avila once said, or should have, if she didn't: "We won't get there until we all get there."

Happy Feast Day!

03 October 2009

Pace e Bene! (Peace and all Good!)

When I was twenty and a junior in college, I fell in love. It was a resounding thump that has echoed through the decades since then. And a Jesuit was responsible, no kidding.

I was in Rome at Loyola University (Chicago) Rome Center on Monte Mario. Some three hundred of us lived in a former tuberculosis sanitarium with wonderful balconies, too much espresso and Coke, and far too many cigarettes. We came from all over the United States. I was surprised to find a first grade classmate there. That year was exceptional and it sometimes sneaks out in a Chicago-accent that still sounds strange coming from a Northwest mouth.

It was 1973-74. Spiro Agnew resigned while we were gone. Streaking was a hot fad. (One of our classmates went home after the first semester and showed up in the newspaper streaking at a baseball game in Chicago.) Nixon resigned when we got home. There was homegrown terrorism in Italy. The son of someone famous was kidnapped and his ear was sent to his parents. I rode a train through Bologna. At the station, I stared out the window at a pile of bricks, leftover destruction from a bombing the week before.

All the news we got about the US came from a newspaper with two pages of news, more of sports, and the comics. It wasn't much. We learned instead how others saw the US. And we learned of the concerns of people in Europe who had to live in the shadow of US and USSR politics. I never saw my own country the same.

But I was talking about falling in love. In early October 1973, Fr. John Crocker took a group of us on the train to Assisi. It was three hours from Rome. The train was packed. I sat on a wooden fold-out seat in the corridor and was grateful for it. We spent the weekend in Assisi.

It's a beautiful medieval town with rosy colored stone from the quarry off the back of the hill. The Basilica of St. Francis anchors one end of town and you can walk to the upper part of the town by following the souvenir shops. At the upper end is the Basilica of St. Clare with the cross from San Damiano hanging in a chapel. (That's the cross that's on the left side of this blog, in case you hadn't recognized it.)

That cross once hung in a ruin of a church down below the city. In the early days of his conversion, Francis used to pray there and heard God telling him, "Go, rebuild my church, which you can see is falling into ruins." Francis started picking up stones and rebuilding the walls of that church. Later he would figure out that his mission was bigger than what he'd first imagined, but he started with those few stones. The church of San Damiano is where the Poor Ladies lived, where St. Clare lived out her long life. It was from this place that she prayed that the Saracens might leave Assisi alone. A bouquet of flowers marks the spot where she slept and finally died.

That weekend in Assisi, we tromped all over the place. We saw more than the usual tourists see in their three-hour lunch stop on the way to Florence. "Here's where Francis was born, where his father locked him up for being rebellious, where he stripped off his clothes in front of the bishop's house...." We went up the mountain to the Hermitage. We discovered little archways with a notation that he'd been there. We heard the story about Assisi's war with Perugia and understood the ambition to give everything to a great cause. We sat in an amphitheatre hidden in an upper neighborhood.

That weekend, history blasted alive for me. Here was a place affected by the Crusades. Here were people who'd been caught between pope and emperor. Here was a young man who didn't want to sell cloth but wanted something more. Here was someone willing to risk it all and was the first guy canonized by his nickname, "Frenchy"! (I have to thank a Franciscan sister who told me that, although my given name was not a saint's, it was my responsibility to become St. Shannon.)

History was finally about real people who struggled with the demands of their day and believed. They thought God was telling them one thing, and learned, by making mistakes, that God would ask more of them. There was plenty to be ranted about, and even more to be awed by. I learned that every age can be holy.

It was the same lesson I'd learned a few years earlier when I'd started going to church again. When I left in 8th grade, Mass was in English but that hadn't seemed to make a difference in the town where I lived. By the time I went again as a freshman in college, I had the profound understanding that every language is holy. Even the words that I strung together were heard by God, not because they were in fancy packages, but because they were my own. And all those stories I'd heard and read in Catholic grade school? They were true.

I fell for Francis, and by falling for him, for Jesus as well. I thought I had to be a nun in order to follow Jesus completely--and cloistered, like Clare, seemed the only way to go. I was enamored, for a brief time, by some sisters in Philadelphia who wore pink habits and rollerskated in their enclosure, but in the end, it was going to be the Poor Clares for me.

And like Francis who picked up rocks to rebuild a crumbling church, it wasn't the Poor Clares in the end. Whether it was my deep-seated extraverted nature, or the way I really like being around both men and women, or because I didn't have it in me, I didn't become a Poor Clare. I went into teaching, thinking that the Poor Clares would surely ask if there was anything else I'd ever wanted to try, and I'd be two steps ahead of them... But the abbess didn't think I was called and I discovered I loved teaching. (And that's neatly stepping around the BIG elephant in the room where I thought that since the Poor Clares didn't want me, it was clear that God didn't either.) I loved teaching. And then I loved parish work. And now I love the prison.

In my office, there is a poster of the Cross of San Damiano and Cimabue's painting of Francis. In my heart, I carry the words that Francis wrote to one of the Friars Minor:

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 mercy for the asking, if he will only look into your eyes. And if he does not ask for mercy, you should ask him if he wants it. 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.

It's this picture that is in my office--minus all the glory-toting angels. Isn't that just like Francis, a character off to the side and setting a match to the revolution?

14 September 2009

Running Into Famous People

Sunday afternoon, the final service of the day. I'm looking out the classroom window at the garden below. It is half harvested now. Still hundreds of pounds of potatoes, tomatoes, carrots and cabbage yet to be pulled, but close to 9,000 pounds of vegetables have gone to the kitchen and to four local foodbanks already.

Into the classroom comes a young man. "Catholic service?" It is. He sticks out his hand. "I'm Chuck Norris." I bite my tongue and resist making a crack about his famous namesake, certain that he's heard it all his life. He's bright, chatty, full of questions. The room fills up.

Later I run across Gary Cooper who has decided he is Pagan this time through prison. Who knew?

Today, I got to talk to Carole King. Turns out she's the mother of one of my guys. No, not that Carole King.

Names are a great fun thing around here. Perhaps because I was a teacher for 10 years, I tend to notice names and can make a fairly good guess at how they have been mispronounced over the years. Growing up, my last name was Cain. Every English teacher I ever had in high school, on the first day of class, would take roll and get to my name and say, "Cain? Where's Abel?" And there was an Abel. Carol Abel. Junior year she sat two rows over and one back. She probably got the same question in other classes.

I've made phone calls for guys whose entire family had names beginning with T. (Note to self: Do not ask if their dad is "Mister T.")

More fun is trying to extricate the name of "my baby's momma's momma's sister." Does she have a name? Or does she go by "Hey you?"

Some of the Hispanic men are impressed when I can spell their names after hearing it the first time, but I grew up in Southern California and it isn't such a parlor trick as it might seem. One of my brothers had a good friend while we were growing up. We often came home to a message that read, "Geoff, Jesus called."

"What am I supposed to call you?" The man was truly puzzled as he was leaving my office today. There are so many choices! Twenty years ago, my students in New Orleans called me "Ms. O." These days I answer to "Chaplain," "Sister," "Shannon (or Sharon or Janet)."

But I do love running into famous people. Gary, Chuck, nice to meet you.

04 September 2009

Discovering Nature

I'm infamous for not "doing" nature. Going for a walk in the woods or on the beach is not a meditative or restorative experience for me. Chalk it up to physical awkwardness or just plain fear that I will fall and not be able to get up. Whatever. I found a kindred spirit in a pastor named Kathy last year. Kathy said she was a couch potato and couldn't understand why one would want to "go for a walk and talk" when one could just as easily sit on the couch and talk.

I do the "ooooh and ahhhhh" thing from time to time, but it is rare.

A pastor I once worked for was going on about his summer vacation, a month on the coast of Oregon. I looked at him and said, "I couldn't do that. The ocean never shuts up!" True.

I live in a beautiful part of the country, and April to June is wonderful with waves of new colors appearing. The streets can be awash with rain and looking quite dreary, then one day the cherry trees blossom--and there's never just one standing alone, groups of cherry trees in shades from white to almost red.

At the prison, there's a severe lack of nature. Much of the campus is paved over with cement. There are great stretches of green, but it is not lawn. It is yard. By mid-August it is brown and stiff and there are deep grooves where the softball games have gone on too long. The only green left is around the flower beds which are relentlessly cheerful in color and variety. And the green of the vegetable garden which holds thousands of pounds of the good stuff for the local food banks.

Lately, though, I've been sending guys "out into nature" to get a new perspective on things. It feels like a strange suggestion.

If you stand anywhere on the prison grounds, you can see the evergreen trees that surround us. The ground itself was once covered with trees, but they were cleared out to build the prison back in the 1960s. The evergreens that are visible are far outside the perimeter, across the road (and you wouldn't dare go hiking in those woods because they are covered with treated sludge from our wastewater treatment plant). The Olympic mountains are visible, snowcapped for a good part of the year. But there are no trees within the fences. The flower gardens start their journey in the greenhouse, as do the vegetables. One day there is nothing, the next day, flowers and vegetables.

If you stand anywhere and look out at the horizon, you see concrete. You see chain link fences. You see something standing in your way of the view. I think those visual limitations cramp the soul, but most people don't realize it. I can't send restless men out to "take a walk." Too often that's just an invitation to be in the wrong place and get a write-up for doing it.

So I've been telling them to find a spot in the big yard and lay down. Look up at the sky. Watch the clouds for a while. See the big expanse that can't be seen when standing vertically. Shift the horizon.

The suggestion has been met with quizzical looks. I'm not surprised. But after I'd given that direction to the 12th or 13th person, I added, "You won't be alone out there staring at the sky, I promise."

And they haven't been.

I'm on vacation this week and listening to the rain outside my window falling onto the broad leaves of whatever-it-is growing out there. I like the sound. It's peaceful. It's about as close to nature as I get. But it's good.

25 August 2009

"I'm a Bootist."

When on emotional overload, paperwork looks like a good thing. Specifically, recording the religious preference(s) of newly admitted offenders. Most are fairly mundane. Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Catholic (or "Chatolic"). The Protestants occasionally spell out Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterian. Okay, I'm lying about the last one. The guys can't spell Presbyterian. And want to guess what "Progispant" is connected to?

And these are all the normal ones, the single religion guys. I may have to squint, cross my eyes, pull out the secret decoder ring, but usually I can interpret what I read.

Today, however, I went to the Religious Preference Forms after:
--playing referee between the kitchen and the men who are fasting during Ramadan. (Note to religious policy people: Starting a major fast on a weekend is a bad idea.)

--doing the marathon Open Chapel sessions from 9-11am and 12:30-3pm where the line outside my office stretched to 25 and people were asking for rosaries (need to fill out a special form for that), Qu'rans (another special form), address of a discipleship ministry that might take someone coming out of prison, zip code for "the last business where I worked so I can fill out my tax return," five phone calls to a single family all with the same result: "The number you have dialed has been disconnected," and a few prayers with some very humble people.

--trying to find that one piece of paper in that chaos-pile on my desk, the one that had the information about two new volunteers coming into the prison on Saturday who have to be put on the Authorized Visitor list.

--realizing I forgot to bring anything for lunch, but there was popcorn.

--sorting the mail, some 75+ pieces today, into piles: tasks for the chapel workers, completed forms for the Transitioning Offenders Program, requests for the Lutheran Pastor, mail for the former Volunteer Coordinator who is now a Mental Health Counselor and in another building, returned mail, and mine. Guess whose pile was the largest?

--double-checking the cell assignments of 30+ offenders on the "Ramadan Dailies" list. Since we're a receiving prison with a mobile population, the names and locations shift. Every day. Sometimes they change cells or buildings. Other times, they've moved to a new institution.

Mind-numbing idiot work is a part-time craving when the interactions with live people have been too numerous. It's routine, satisfying because the stack of papers get done. It's mind-numbing when I have to enter the number and then click on another screen, scroll down, and 50% of the time discoverthat someone has already entered the religion. But then again, I often find the Wiccans have been classified as "Other" even though the correct path is "Pagan" and then "Wiccan." But even idiot work has its benefits because I don't have to think too hard.

It was while working through 150+ forms that I came across "I am a Bootist." I stopped. I looked. I frowned. I sounded it out. Oooooooooohhhhhhhh.

I entered his number, clicked on the next page, scrolled down to "Religion," clicked on "Edit," and then clicked on "Buddhist" and the date and the prison name. Then I saved it.

I answered the phone twice.

And then I went over to Unit 6 to tell one man that his girlfriend had the baby, but the baby died right away. And to tell another man that his fiancee jumped from a bridge over the main freeway in Bellingham last Friday. She was hit by several vehicles. "Is she okay?" Of course he asked that. And of course she wasn't.

The supervisor of Unit 6 put the grieving father on the phone with his wife. He sat in the office and sobbed, his tears a puddle on the floor.

At the opposite end of the hall I was with the man who sobbed on the phone with his father, "It's all my fault. I talked to her Friday morning and told her I couldn't be with her if she kept doing drugs."

When they were ready to return to their cells, I gave them both a packet of Kleenex and told them to come see me in the morning. I went back to my office, looking for some idiot work.

I read my email and went on the hunt for yet another man from yet another unit. He turned out to be sitting in the chapel next door. His 21-year-old stepson had been shot nine times by the police. He's in the hospital in critical condition, but he's going to make it. I put the dad on the phone to his wife and they talked a long time.

That's when I did the paperwork, punching in numbers, turning over forms, passing the Kleenex when it was needed.

I am a "Bootist." Boy, I could use one of those about now.

22 August 2009

Chaplain or Pastor?

The question was the first of ten in the interview on Friday: What's the difference between a chaplain and a pastor?

A chaplain is a pastor with a slightly different hat.

Most pastors have a specific congregation. They come out of a specific belief system and organized group and they serve a particular group. They work with people who may be as diverse as anything on the planet, but there are some things they agree on and they're traveling the road in the same general direction with a shared history and at least some shared goals.

A chaplain may come from a specific faith tradition, and may be assigned to serve a particular congregation--like me in my role as the Catholic chaplain at the prison. The Catholics in my care differ wildly in background and faith practice, but they generally identify themselves (or Grandma) as Catholic. Granted, I don't think there are any all-male Catholic congregations pastored by a woman outside the prison, but you wouldn't find our practices too different from what you'd see in the average parish.

A chaplain in a prison is shaped and trained in a particular tradition, but is pastor to all: those with faith, those with many, those with none. A chaplain knows something about every faith group and cares about the spiritual journey of everyone who comes through the door. A chaplain is tuned into the nuances of how different faith groups name God, experience loss and grief, express repentance and renewal. A chaplain listens to the words beneath the jargon and finds common ground. A chaplain isn't threatened by a different point of view.

A good pastor is all those things, but a pastor is far more likely to be dealing with a somewhat homogeneous group of folks. The only thing all the guys in prison have in common is that they are guys. [Nope, don't even go there. Everyone at the prison was sentenced as a male, never mind what medical procedures they were pursuing.]

There were nine other questions. Three qualities of leadership? Vision, empathy/compassion, flexibility. Ever been told to do something that is against your faith principles? Not yet. Usually it's more an opportunity for education in Catholic ways and beliefs. --Though a good friend who had long been a Catholic chaplain at another prison in the area left his job when the Attorney General's office said that offenders could be whatever and however many religions they wanted to be, even if they were contradictory.

It does get a little strange at times. Every now and then we have a rash of people signing up for a kosher diet (and Jewish religion) in segregation, some of them with all sorts of Nazi symbols tattooed on their head, arms, back. Or like the man who claimed he was Muslim: Sunni, Shi'ite, and Sufi. (I was tempted to get him Islam for Dummies so he could learn something of the differences.) There was a man in that segregation unit last winter who sent more than 20 requests for different religious material, each request claiming to be a different religion, including Catholic and Rastafarian. I finally had to tell him I didn't have the resources to fill his requests and that he'd have to make up his mind as far as his requests went.

I won't know until next Friday what the outcome of the interview is. It will be a change, in some ways, to be a Department of Corrections chaplain rather than the Catholic chaplain. Truth is, I've been doing the job for quite a while. I've learned a lot in 10 years. I hope I can stay for 10 more.

16 August 2009

The Sounds of Prison

It was very hot here two weeks ago. Seattle hit 104 the same day I got in my car with the temperature reading 108. It wasn't the heat that struck me so much when I was leaving. It was the silence.

Usually when I leave the facility in the mid to late afternoon, there are people leaving the yard, heading in for the afternoon count. The offices in the administrative building are still busy and fans can be heard from several windows. People in the Intensive Management Unit (segregation) sometimes knock on the window to get some attention. The windows are narrow slits and frosted over (and that frost is often scratched off) and you can't see in, but I wave anyway in the general direction of the knock. Some days, there is a bus idling outside the Receiving office, having just unloaded another group from a county jail.

Across from that office are Units 1 and 3 with people who have just arrived and haven't yet gotten classified. Those units, two stories tall, with ten two-person cells down eight tiers, are noisy. Guys play chess by calling out the moves. There's the usual challenge debate that boils down to "My mom is prettier than your mom." A bit of old home-week banter sounds cheerful compared to the dissing contests.

The afternoon that it was 108, the birds were nowhere in sight and it was silent on the walkway. No knocks on the windows of the IMU. No conversations to be heard from Units 1 and 3. Utter silence, as if it were just too darn hot to make the effort to speak. It was an unusual moment.

It's hot in the units. They are built of concrete and rebar; they soak up the heat and hold it in. Opening the windows can help, but there is no air through the units. The complaints pile up with the heat: showers are only every other day--an hour out in the yard in the hot sun, even if you're just sitting around and not chasing after a softball, and suddenly a small cell is pungent. Add to that the ever-so-seventh-grade trick: farting. Good grief. It's hard not to laugh.

I just remember my four younger brothers who ran around in a pack and, even now, in their 40s and 50s, we still call "the boys." The men here at prison are just so much extended family some days.

18 July 2009

This Weekend

... is the annual Revival.

Jesus bands.

Lots of testimonies.

Altar calls.

"Sign this card if you've given your heart of Jesus!"

Frantic card-counting in the chapel afterwards

This year: no telephone books ripped, no bricks broken. We will create no trash in honor of the Lord.

And where am I?


Thinking about the seeds that get planted all year.

Pondering the seeds that will be sown this weekend.

Planning for the aftermath

I've backslid.

Turned my back on God.

Told God to take a hike.

Thought I could do it on my own.

How do I make God look at me again?

I gave my life to God last year, and everything has been horrible ever since.

Getting ready for the aftermath

sitting with the brokenness

praying with tears

reminding that God laughs with us, not at us

It's Revival Weekend. I'll be there Sunday.

and Monday and Tuesday and Wednesday

29 June 2009

What Are the Chances?

Synchronicity and coincidence run neck and neck around here sometimes. I'm always on the lookout for connections between stories, but there are days when the two by four is wrapped in neon and brings along bumper stickers and T-shirts as well.

For instance, this weekend, I dealt with two men whose brothers had died.

And last week, two different men whose mothers had died.

What's with that?

Two weeks ago, a man sat in my office shaking. He'd just gotten back his HIV test and found he was negative. The man who might have infected him is sitting in jail, facing charges related to deliberately infecting his partners. The enormity of it all overwhelmed Jimmy and when I got him on the phone with his mother, he cried like a little boy. Today he got word that another friend from his circle has died of AIDS.

Twenty years ago, I did volunteer work with the local AIDS foundation. It was still a scary time back in the late 80s. People who were diagnosed were often dead in 18-24 months. Talking and handholding were important things to do. Listening was a key skill.

I couldn't have guessed then that the work I did there would have somehow led to the work I do as a chaplain. I'm often amazed how much of my life experience gives me some common ground with the people I meet each day. Which means I need to stay open to my life and all the people in it. There's always time to hear another story.

28 June 2009

"The Worst of the Lord"

"God did not make death, nor does God rejoice in the destruction of the living." Wisdom 1:13

What a great line, and a prelude to the gospel story that tells of not one, but two women healed by Jesus. It's not often I can make a room full of men blush, so I love the story of the woman who suffers for twelve years with her hemmorhages. "Where do you think she was bleeding from? Her nose?" I can hear the unspoken comments, "Man, PMS for 12 years???"

Set apart from the regular life of the community, dependent on others for necessities, her bank account exhausted and no medical help that she hadn't tried. Had she lived in the 21st century, she would have been up at three in the morning, ordering from another infomercial. But she didn't. One day, she decided enough was enough. She got out of bed, ignored all the people who might be hissing at her that she should go home, paid no attention to the commotion around Jesus. She had only one thought: "If I just touch his clothes, I'll be cured." That's what she aims for.

When she lays claim to her intention, Jesus asks, "Who touched me?" His disciples point to the crowd. They don't see a woman filled with faith, full of the knowledge that she has been healed. "Look at all these people," they whine. "How can you ask who touched you?"

But Jesus knows the look on her face and finds her immediately.

He has his moment with her and sends her back, this time to her community. How does she feel? Three different times today, I looked across a roomful of men and wondered, "How would they ever get what it feels like to have the period from hell that just will not quit?" Instead I asked them, "Imagine that you spend twelve years in prison. Twelve years of someone else telling you what you can wear and what you'll eat, who can visit you, and what music you can listen to. Imagine after twelve years, you get out. You can choose your own clothes and your own schedule. You can drive a car and go where you want. You can go to the store where a whole aisle is devoted to breakfast cereal. Imagine how free you might feel." There were some nods. This they could understand.

But there's this other story, the first claimant to Jesus' healing touch, a 12-year-old girl. No matter that people have arrived saying she's dead. No matter that the professional mourners and musicians are already planning the funeral. No matter the commotion at the house, like the woman who'd touched him earlier, Jesus fixes his eyes on the present need and goes in to the young girl. Again, healing happens with a touch.

I like the similarity between the woman and Jesus, so focused on what was necessary, both intent on life and healing. Isn't that what the line from Wisdom was all about?

You're probably wondering about the title for this post. Twice today, after the reading from Wisdom, the lector said, "The Worst of the Lord." Hey, if this is the worst, how great is the best?

20 June 2009

Maybe It's a Full Moon

and then again, maybe not.

Back in the days of training, and every year since then, correctional workers get warned about being co-opted by the offenders (or the system, I like to add). It's too easy to "fall in" and do things the way everyone else does just because it causes the least resistance. So, for instance, when I'm short-tempered and cranky, I can bark orders and threaten to write an infraction in a heartbeat. Surprised the heck out of a roomful of offenders once when I used my "schoolteacher" voice to make them quiet. (Ten years of teaching high school girls is great training for working in a men's prison. Trust me.)

But co-opting. It's a temptation. I've seen some gorgeous tattoos (and some really ugly ones) but I've only barely thought about getting one. My main hesitation? What if I woke up thin one day? What would that wonderful tattoo look like except puddles of ink?

I decided early on that my wardrobe would be simple--mostly because I didn't have much money to wear anything too dressy, but also for solidarity's sake. I stick to jeans and a bright colored top. For variety's sake, the last two years, I have sported a "boot" that protects broken bones. Last year it was the left foot (arch bone broken into "three pieces and gravel"), this year it's the right foot (four broken toes, and yes, I broke them all at one time. Go figure). The boot is also my "attention getting device," as if I don't get enough attention.

I wear a watch and sometimes a beaded bracelet made of recycled paper by women in Uganda who used to work in the stone quarries. It's the story I like, and so do the guys when I tell them. But nothing else. My pierced ears closed up a long time ago and I'm not inclined to pierce anything else.

Hair is the biggest distinguisher at the prison sometimes. We seem to go through periods where guys are growing it out (and donating to "Locks of Love") or shaving it off (when the shampoo is really bad, it's easier not to have any hair) or getting an odd cut that eventually comes off because someone determines it's a "gang indicator."

None of which explains this:
I can't wait to go to work in the morning.

14 June 2009

Torches and Buckets

Saint Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic, saw an angel rushing towards her, carrying a torch and a bucket of water. “Where are you going with that torch and bucket?” she asked. "What will you do with them?”

“With the water,” the angel answered, “I will put out the fires of hell, and with the fire I will burn down the mansions of heaven; then we will see who really loves God.”

I have forgotten where I first read or heard this quote, but the image it conjures in my mind has stayed with me for years. As it teased my imagination, so it has been one of the building blocks of my spirituality--which, if I am truthful about it--has always been "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" (with thanks to Fiddler on the Roof).

I've yet to find an illustration, but I want one, desperately. I wonder if we could live our lives without the threat of punishment or the promise of reward. Could we just do the right thing because it is the right thing? I hope so.

In terms of prison ministry, carrying this story within me means that I don't fall in line with the "scare them away from hell" folks. Fear is all some people understand. The criminal justice system certainly makes that clear. But I don't have to go along with it. I don't have to co-opt that vocabulary and vision. There's room in my thinking for doing things just because they are the right things to do.

I hope I have that courage.

13 June 2009

Caps and Gowns

It's graduation season here in the Northwest. Yesterday was the last day of school for most districts and in the afternoon, the streets were full of students celebrating. Those in cars honked their farewells, those on foot cheered with lattes held aloft. The windows of cars and trucks have been decorated for weeks with "Proud parent of THS grad!" and "2009 rules!" "UW bound!" "Proud Scripps dad!" The governor spoke at the University of Washington graduation that went on for almost four hours, according to a grandmother who attended. Caps were adorned with "Hire me."

At the prison, graduation is not quite so visible or vocal. Two times a year, we have a graduation ceremony. The graduating class is small, but the names in the program are many. The greatest number of graduates are those who received their GED certificates. They passed five tests to get that piece of paper, but the work and life behind those tests--if you only knew.

I've heard some of the stories about education interrupted, families that came apart at the seams and made homework impossible, drugs and alcohol that made a more convincing argument. Now they're in prison and here is a small victory, a success, something that puts them on notice that they can indeed accomplish something.

We're a receiving prison. Men don't stay here long, but sometimes just long enough to get a taste of success, long enough to pass the GED tests. They may not be here to pick up the certificate, but they'll get it in the mail.

No horns honking, but the families who come to the graduation are pleased, relieved, amazed. We all eat cake and drink prison punch. One small step toward release, toward a better life back in the community. Maybe I should think about decorating my car when graduation comes around.

31 May 2009

"I Don't Envy You"

The call came early, a little after seven. "Chaplain, we've had a death here."

"I'll be there in an hour."

When I arrived and turned in my keys, one of the officers behind the glass said he needed to talk to me, so I turned to the door that he'd come through, only to be met by a staff investigator at the gate who wanted to talk to me now. The officer said, "The superintendent wants to see her first," so the staff member gave up his claim on me and we went off to see the superintendent.

There I was given the basics: an offender had hung himself this morning and died as a result. It was my job to inform his wife.

From that office, I went down the hall to the Investigations office and got the basics all over again, with a few more details. We talked briefly, the three investigators and I. One of them said, "I don't envy you telling the wife."

I shook my head. "You don't understand. I do this kind of thing all the time. I pull an offender into an office and I'm there to tell him bad news: his 9 year old was killed by a drunk driver in California, his grandmother took a turn for the worse, his dad won't last long enough for him to get a visit. I give out bad news all the time. The only thing that's different this time is that I'm picking up a phone and making a call."

I headed to my office. I hadn't planned on being in, so to everyone I encountered on the way I had to ask that they bar my door, intercept anyone who dropped in, and save the messages til later. I closed the office door and sat down at my desk. The phone number of the woman who was going to get this news was in my hand. I reached for the phone.

The man who'd died, I'll call him Gary, was in his late fifties. He'd only been in prison for a week and this was his first time. He was sentenced to 67 months. Sometime about 5:30 in the morning, he'd strung a sheet through the bars and tied it around his neck, then he sat down in the corner and died.

His cellmate was asleep when this happened, but had awakened thinking, "He never told me to go back to sleep before." Gary had been agitated over the long weekend, pacing the small cell, doing pushups, asking questions again and again, although he'd gotten a clear answer the first five times. He'd seen a counselor, been checked by the medical staff, saw the mental health folks.

Gary didn't respond when his cellmate asked, "Hey, buddy, are you okay?" The cellmate poked him and then called for the officers. They kicked into high gear.

Standard Operating Procedure in a case like this is to consider the cell a crime scene, so Gary's cellmate was handcuffed and moved to the hole. Gary was pulled out of the cell and several people worked on him using CPR. There are ten cells down the tier, two men per cell. That means that 18 people had front row seats as officers tried to save a life. Another tier, above had another ten cells, so another 20 people heard everything that was going on: people barking orders and making decisions. One of the medical staff arrived, examined Gary, and pronounced him dead. His body was removed to the infirmary. And shift changed at 6.

When I got to the unit, it was after 10. The offenders were in the gym, so I talked with the officers. Most of them were "handling it." They had come in after the excitement was over, but they'd seen their colleagues at shift change.

When the men started coming in from gym, one of the officers brought Gary's cellmate over to talk to me. He'd been in prison before, he told me, so he'd been keeping an eye on Gary, helping him master the complicated phone system, telling him how things run in prison, trying to answer the questions Gary asked again and again. He'd alerted the staff to Gary's erratic behavior and gotten him the attention he needed.

I asked how he was doing and he shrugged. "I've had so many people die before." He listed family members of several generations and said, "I was riding in the truck with my wife when she died." Out came a horrific story: a family barbecue, a full stop at a stop sign, a motorcyclist going 125 miles an hour ramming into their truck.

One of the officers came to get me. Half the unit was in the dining hall and the sergeant wanted them to know I was available if anyone wanted to talk. I introduced myself, told them that no one expects death in prison, but that Gary had known something besides just the craziness of prison; he'd known kindness. People had listened to him and helped him. He hadn't been left alone. Then we took a moment of silence. I said, "Amen?" and they said, "Amen!" and finished eating their lunch.

When the next group came down, I went through it again, though this was the group that included the men who had seen the efforts to revive Gary. So I said a little more than I had the first time, but we concluded with that moment of silence and a group "Amen!"

Today is Sunday, the feast of Pentecost, feast of new life. I talked with volunteers who came to do church services and told them what had happened on Thursday. "Someone may ask you if you think Gary's in hell. My stance is that God's mercy is far wider than any of our imaginations. Pray for him, pray for his family, but don't let anyone go down the road of judging him." People in prison have been through enough judgement. They can dish it out, and they take a lot of it. What they need right now are ways to get through this without resorting to despair. The volunteers knew that without my saying it.

At 9:30, I was back in that dining room, setting up for the Catholic service. There were more people than usual, almost 30, and they were eager to volunteer to read. When it came time for the Lord's Prayer, I said, as I often do, that there were others we needed to pray for, who weren't on the list in the Prayers of the Faithful. I named Gary and his family, the officers who'd tried to save him, the people who witnessed his death. Then, together, we prayed.

There are a few things left to do, the first being to write Gary's name in the Book of Remembrance that I keep on my desk. There are a couple of phone calls and a few emails to make. There will be people to see this week on Wednesday as they try to make sense of this death and the losses in their own lives.

"You must hate this part of your job," someone will say.

No. Never. This is the place where the real living happens. It is a gift and grace to be here.

30 April 2009

About those worms...

It has been too long. The last time I wrote, we were still early in Lent. Lent came and went, and so did Easter. We're headed into the fourth week of Easter and I'm still trying to come up for air.

Worms. I did mention worms.

They were the inspiration for my part of the homily on Easter Sunday. It poured rain on Easter. When I picked up my keys and headed for the chapel, I found the walkways covered with worms. Hundreds of them. Like I've never seen before.

I heard John the Baptist roaring in my head, "Who told you to flee the wrath to come??"

In the winter, the walkways can get icy and it's easy to slip. Worms are more treacherous.

What I said about the worms was this: Looking at them, I knew that the worms natural place was under the grass, in the ground. Yet the ground was so soaked with water that they were escaping their natural habitat and headed for what looked like certain death: cement and puddles. Isn't that just like baptism? We leave a safe place--or at least what we've known as a comfort zone--and launch ourselves into the waters of baptism, certainly a death that we have yet to understand.

Somehow, we survive.

(And I'll resist quoting that infamous line, "I am a worm and not a man!")

It is spring. The swallows are back building nests all over the facility. There are often bird fights involving the swallows, blackbirds, crows, and seagulls, with the robins distracted with the worms.

More of the guys are on the track in the morning. We can see them through the chapel windows when we gather for Sunday services. Sunshine draws most of us out for doses of Vitamin D. The baseball injuries are showing up in the infirmary: black eyes where the softball hit, twisted ankles. People are in a better mood for the most part, even if April is notoriously fickle and will never let the sun shine more than two days in a row.

The garden is huge this year, doubled since last fall. The beets and potatoes went in this week. The produce from the garden has gone to four food banks and a senior center in past years, a way of giving back to the community. That will happen again this year, but in addition, the new plots will grow vegetables that can be incorporated into the prison diet. Let's hear it for more fresh veggies!

I'm sure there are worms out there. I'm just sure.

02 April 2009

It's spring! April Fool!

That was the greeting all day long yesterday. April 1st and it was snowing. Cold and snowing. The white stuff covered the garden that is begging to be planted. It covered the yard where the phones stood silent. It covered the jackets pulled up over the heads of offenders trudging toward lunch. It didn't stick to the sidewalks. Small miracle.

It was all gone by three in the afternoon.

A friend from one of the county jails called to tell me, "A friend of ours is coming back to you." When he told me the name, I wailed, "Again? What happened?" John laughed. "You know what he said? 'This time I didn't do it.'

When I saw our mutual friend, he told me, "I really didn't do it. I mean, I did smoke some weed, but I swear I didn't know the car was stolen."

08 March 2009

Second Sunday of Lent--random thoughts

It's March 8th, for heaven's sake. Look out the windows of the chapel. There's a near white-out going on. Snow?? Again? Too true. I hadn't seen any snow in the whole hour that it took to drive from Tacoma to Shelton. When I got to the parking lot, it was sort of misting kind of hard (you have to live in Western Washington to get the nuances).

I went inside, turned in my keys, went through two sets of gates, picked up my work keys, went through one last gate and outside. Thick fluffy flakes settled on me. This place has its own convergence zone.

Men on the walkway from their units to the dining hall looked headless. Their coats were pulled up over their heads as they hustled.

The first reading sent Abraham and Isaac up to Mt. Moriah. "Good Abraham! Lots of faith!" Yeah. Right. "Good Isaac! Lots of faith!" I don't think so. I have this picture in my head of Sarah coming out of the tent, waving an apron and yelling, "God said WHAT? Are you out of your mind? What are you thinking?"

And I'm still thinking about a comment I read somewhere, comparing this Abraham with the one who was set on bargaining with God, "What? You'll destroy this whole town? What if there are 50 righteous people in it? 45? 40?" All the way down to ten. What happened to that man? "God never spoke to Abraham again (after the Mt. Moriah incident)." Good. Serves him right.

I know--that chapter is also a lesson in "Human sacrifice does not belong here" in Jewish practice. But what about the rest of it?

And I can never get enough of Peter on Mt. Tabor. "Cool beans! Let's set up tents! We can put the RVs over there. The Ferris wheel and other rides can go just down the hill. Midway? Who wants to take care of the Midway? Postcards! Virtual games! We'll be rich!"

By the time I left just after three, there was no more snow anywhere. It wasn't quite warm out, but it was sunny with huge wonder-making clouds, a reflection of all the wonder-making inside today.

06 March 2009

"I was so stressed, I wrote 23 poems."

One of the real joys of my job is doing something that is not in my job description. Twice a month, I facilitate a writers group. It's informal, meant to encourage creativity. The rules are few: bring something to read, tell us what kind of critique you want.

Over the years, there have been poetry, essays, stories, how-to articles, love letters, even a couple of books. We listen to it all, no more than three pages at a time. Every now and then I issue a challenge. A couple of years ago, I handed out index cards with five unrelated words on them. One of the participant got a card with "MTV, Singapore, desert, Jell-o, and in-bred" on it. Instead of 3-500 words, he wrote several thousand about a time travel device that was misfiring.

Dave came to the group more than five years ago and wanted to write about his life as a mechanic working the boats in Alaska. He had a fine knack for taking technical aspects and making them understandable to lay people, while still keeping the experts enthralled. Some nights it was just the two of us there. Dave worked on his writing as well as his reading. He struggled to be clear about what he had written. Over time, he finished two books. Now that he's been released from prison, he's looking for a publisher, and I've no doubt he'll be successful.

Last night, half a dozen men showed up. One man is working on an English course by correspondence. We've been listening to his assignments over the months. This one was a research paper on God, limited to eight pages. One of the other men asked him if the questions posed in his paper were his own questions, or were they posed by others? Duane said they were his own, that he was interested in learning more about God. We talked for a while about how it helps to have a subject you're interested in when you're assigned a research paper. Like anything else, motivation helps.

There are all sorts of artists in prison. They could be making real money on their talent. Instead, they are swapping it for coffee and another goodie from the store. Pictures are admired the most. Those verbal artists can sometimes be rare, but they do exist.

A popular item that was available in my office for a while was a composition book. You know those hard-backed, black and white marble covered books we used for school? or someone did. They can be expensive, but every now and then, especially in the run up to Labor Day, they can be found at Wal-Mart for fifty cents. I had a generous friend who'd donate dozens to me and a line would form outside my door as soon as the supply was in. "Do you have any journals?" (The composition books are now available through the offender store, so my benefactor is concentrating on other things.)

It's amazing how a little fifty cent book of lined pages can change a man. A couple of years after he got his first journal, Ted came through Shelton again and came looking for me. "That journal you gave me? I wrote letters to my kids in it. They were pretty young when I started and they'll be almost teenagers when I get out, but I've been able to share some things with them. I want them to know me, not just the few minutes we get on the phone or in the Visit Room. I really want them to know me."

The writer at our latest meeting said that writing had helped him get through some serious stresses, enough to write 23 poems.

Who knows what uproar is averted because a person has pen and paper and a few minutes alone?

01 March 2009

Ash Sunday

It's that time again. Lent is here. Every year we do a crash course in the purpose of Lent. The altar cloth changes--from the mainly blue Mexican serape to a deep purple, the candle from white to purple, we stop saying the Gloria and the Alleluia--though our wonderful worship sheets had the Alleluia included on the English side and not on the Spanish.

We move Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday of Lent for purely practical reasons: we can get everyone together on Sunday. Wednesday is far more iffy. About two dozen people arrived well after we'd distributed ashes this morning and I got some weird looks and had to explain again why we put ashes on our foreheads.

Catholic service is never just full of Catholics. We get the Protestants who got up too early, the curious, the religious who try to hit every service possible, and those who want a head start on the way to the gym where there are phones available. (We finally had to post signs for these folks, "If you leave the service at 8:30, you must return to your unit and NOT go to the gym.")

It's fun doing the education piece. Try explaining why Easter falls when it does. Someone asked when Easter was this year. April 12th. Easy enough. But why is it different every year? Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. Easy once you know what all those pieces are.

Last year, one of the men decided his Lenten discipline was to say enough rosaries to equal the distance from the prison to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers in Washington DC. A bit ambitious. He's trying something different this year.

And while there's no special diet for Catholics for the Lenten season, for some reason the Department of Corrections, in a budget-cutting move, is serving some alternate protein on Fridays--no meat. Which means that all my gentle teasing about eating what's put in front of you without complaining, even if it's steak, is going to waste.

I'd like to give up doing death notifications for Lent, but I had two this afternoon already. There were nineteen death notifications in February, five of them over a two day period. One of the Native American men told me that whenever they go down to the sweat lodge, they pray for me because they know I carry the sorrow and the prayers of so many. That almost took my breath away. What a comfort and a support.

Happy Lent.

19 February 2009

"When I get out, I'll be short one brother."

It took a while to find the last offender I needed to see tonight. I called the unit to let them know I was sending Michael back down to them. Mike's grandmother had died and we talked to his family about the information I needed to get the paperwork started for a funeral trip. Now Mike was on his way back to the unit and there was another guy I needed to see.

This one--an officer had sent an email because Eli had gotten a letter that his brother had committed suicide, hung himself in a public park in the north part of the state.

Half an hour later, Eli still hadn't shown up. I went out into the chapel where things were in full swing, and just before another brother gave his testimony, I asked if Eli was in the room. He wasn't. I went back to my office and called the unit. The booth officer was mystified. "I sent him out of here two minutes after we talked. I gave him explicit instructions." Somehow, he hadn't made it. The officer called the gym, thinking Eli might have gone there.

Twenty minutes later, still no Eli. I called the officer at the lobby of our building. "I saw a guy looking teary-eyed who asked for you about half an hour ago. I told him to go straight through the chapel to the open door with the light on." But no Eli. The officer left his post, went into the chapel and interrupted the preacher, "Is there an Eli in here?"

Eli raised his hand. He got escorted to my office. Somehow, between the officer's desk and my door, he'd gotten sidetracked. No wonder.

He was full of guilt and remorse and sadness and "I don't get it." The family had lost two other sons and brothers in past years and the young man in front of me was only 20, crushed by this awful news. This dead brother had a body loaded with cocaine and Eli blamed himself for getting his brother started on cocaine. "If I'd been there, I would have seen it. I could have stopped him." And then he raged at his brother for giving up, for being a coward, for not asking for help.

"Have you ever experienced anything like this?" he wanted to know. I haven't, not quite like this, but I just listened. "When I get out, I'll be short one brother."

His tears were so much like those of Mike, like those of Lewis whose older brother died of cancer, of Dave whose ex-wife, mother of their kids, died in her sleep, of George whose uncle died--and his mother came from Missouri for the funeral and thought she might be able to visit her son, for the first time in 20 years. She'd lost him to state care when he was eight.

Used tissues are piled up in the garbage can, most of them twisted and shredded. My office holds the human explosion of emotions. The wreckage of so much loss is hard to comprehend.

Earlier this afternoon, I stopped to see a friend at the convent where she lives. Sr. Una is as straight-backed as they come, a woman from Ireland who is close to 90. Her memory isn't what it used to be, but she knows who I am and the work that I do. She has prayed for the offenders since I first started work at the prison almost ten years ago. She enlists the help of others and several of the sisters spend time in the chapel, going through a basket of prayer intentions that the offenders send. Sr. Una was helping to put together service sheets for tonight's vigil Mass. One of the sisters, the youngest in the house at 67, had died. (The oldest, 104, died two weeks earlier.) There was sadness at this table as the sisters worked, but they told stories about both the dead sisters and I was grateful because they had a common place to be together and they could share the stories.

The men in prison often miss out on that piece in their grief.

10 February 2009

Plan Ahead. Your Life Awaits.

In between what seemed like a gazillion rosary and bible requests on Monday, there were at least a jillion phone calls. Most of them were pretty easy to deal with, but then there was this one:

Ring. Ring.

"Good afternoon. Chaplain O'Donnell."

"Chaplain? Hello, my name is Kyle."

Kyle had a few questions to ask. "I understand that usually a community college is associated with a prison. Is that true of where you are?"

It is. Centralia Community College staffs our education center.

"And are there any classes to take beyond the GED courses?"

Because we're a receiving prison, we really don't offer much. GED, yes. And some Information Technology Certificate classes. Some of the guys are real whizzes with computer programs. I explain all this, and when he asks if people can take anything they want, I tell him that most everyone in general population has to work and keep the place running, so they may have time for one class at a time.

"But really, " I say, "you should be talking to the Education folks. Could I transfer you to them?" That was fine with him, but now, I was curious.

"If you don't mind my asking, why are you interested in our education programs?"

There's a very small silence, then Kyle says, "Well, I'm going to be an inmate there and I'm trying to plan ahead."

I wished him luck, then transferred the call. Then I laughed.

We work so hard to get offenders to make plans for when they release from prison. This was my first experience with someone who was taking planning seriously.

I almost told Kyle to look me up when he gets here. But I didn't. I have a feeling I'll run across him anyway.

19 January 2009

Are You Housekeeping?

I was on the tiers today in one of the units, going from cell to cell. "Who are you?" some people wanted to know. "Are you a counselor?" Counselors are really case managers, so, although I do some counseling around here, I'm not a counselor. "Counselors don't work on Sundays," I said a few times. Someone muttered, "Or any other day either" and there were chuckles up and down the tier.

Counselors have a hard job here. With hundreds of new offenders and violators coming in every month, everyone has to be seen, their files reviewed, and a plan prepared. The counselors have to juggle what they read in legal files, the state and department rules, and the ever-changing requests of offenders and their families.

It's hard to get an appointment with a counselor. I've seen the stacks of notes on their desks and I don't envy them a bit. So no, I'm not a counselor.

I've learned to walk the tiers without pencil and paper in hand. The requests fly thick and fast: a bible, a phone book, a Qu'ran, a zip code, a phone call? "Write a kite," I say over and over. "Put it in writing. Stick it in the mail." What I don't say is that on Sundays, especially, my brain is like a sieve and I have a bad habit of stuffing notes into my pockets. The next time I see those notes, they have gone through the wash and are rendered unreadable.

Today I chatted about books the guys were reading (where did all the Louis L'Amours come from?), the news (did you hear about the Miracle on the Hudson? Many hadn't), the time--almost time for lunch. How far could I get on the tiers before I got trampled by the call to mainline?

A fair number of men had the blankets pulled over their heads to avoid the insistent glare of the flourescent lights. Some were doing pushups with rolls of toilet paper under their hands. A couple of chess games were in full swing, moves yelled from the second floor to the first. The artists were turning out envelope art in shades of pencil. Anyone who was awake seemed to be either thoughtful or engaged with something.

I introduced myself again and again. There was a day when I was part of the Orientation Road Show. Four or five of us staff would meet 150 new offenders in the gym and go through our schtick. I'd run through the important chapel things: how to get stuff from the chapel, what the chaplain could (and couldn't) do, how important it was to keep the emergency contact information up to date. (My horror story was that of a man in general population who died one October. We tried calling his emergency contact number, but it was disconnected. Later we learned that it had been his sister's number and that she had died the year before. When a Christmas card arrived for him in December, we wrote and asked if they had a contact for the family. Two months after his death, we were finally able to tell family that he was gone.)

"I'm the Catholic chaplain." Usually on Sunday I'm doing a church service and the men I get to know are the ones who go to that service. Most of the men in the unit don't have a clue about who I am. Walking the tiers is one way to get known.

And it certainly beats the usual way I show up in the unit. "Uh oh, the chaplain's here. Who died?"

I had walked three tiers and was midway through the fourth. A man in cell 7 poked his head out from a blanket and asked, "Are you housekeeping?" I laughed. How does one mistake prison for a hotel with room service?