31 December 2010

And at the end... Part 2

I did say I'd spent time with two offenders on Thursday, didn't I? David was on a different floor from Jaycey. When I asked the officer if I could see him, the officer wasn't sure he'd want to be disturbed again. Turns out I was the fifth person who'd asked to see him that day already. But David stirred from his sleep and came out to talk to the chaplain.

On this floor, there's a table and two chairs that I call my second office--it's right in the middle of things. Not private at all. We're in full view of almost everyone in the section, and right up against the window of the Lower A dorm. If someone wanted to be obnoxious and make faces, it wouldn't surprise me.

What does surprise me is that people generally respect the space. There may be someone sleeping on the cot right on the other side of the window, but the fifteen to twenty guys in the dorm watch TV or play cards or talk together. No one stares at the chaplain.

For my part, I keep my eyes focused on the man in front of me. (This has become easier since the guys have gotten used to seeing me. I don't get the frantic hand-waving from someone who knew me at the prison anymore. They wait until I'm done.)

David had sent a request to see me. His bible study group's leader had been moved to another section and they needed more material. But it was more than that. David wanted to know about Catholics. Why? Because I'd answered questions they'd raised before (How can I become a bishop? Why are there more books in the Catholic bible?) and I'd done it fairly quickly.

He talked a bit about the other people who'd come to see him that morning: a couple from mental health, a case worker, someone checking on his legal issues. (It was only later that I would remember that his dorm on that floor is known as the Suicide Room because everyone in there is on suicide watch.) He told me his other conversations hadn't gone well. He hadn't felt safe. "But I feel safe talking to you. I get these feelings about people, and you're okay. And I'm thinking maybe I could be Catholic because I could be safe." But then, he shrugged, maybe it's because he's a paranoid-schizophrenic that he has those feelings. No matter. 

I think often about the line: You may be the only gospel someone will ever read. My prayer is that I may be news worth reading.

David hung himself when he was seven years old. He has tried again and again since then. In his eyes is the hunger to know that he is beloved, worth caring about. He has a couple of people in his life who have begun to show him that. Wherever he may end up in church, I hope he finds a deep welcome, a place where he feels safe. 

And at the end...

Thursday I made a quick trip in to Seattle to pick up some mail and to deliver worship sheets to my office so the volunteers would have the readings for this weekend. I ended up staying a couple of hours, spending most of that time with a couple of offenders on different floors of the jail. 

One man was struggling with loving everyone. "Everyone in general?" I asked. "Or someone in particular?" We began with the general but quickly moved to the particular. How do you love someone who keeps stabbing you in the back? Who continues to be mean to you? How do you love them if nothing you say, and nothing you pray, changes them?

The conversation wandered down several alleys and we kept circling back to the examples that are given to us. We weren't talking about the kind of love that makes us lay down like a doormat. And we weren't talking about making some declaration and drawing a line in the sand. It was just the hard stuff of loving.

When he spoke, I heard hints of a tough relationship, someone he loved but couldn't quite understand. I tried to imagine her and then the conversation shifted and it wasn't the woman in his past he was concerned about. Instead, we talked about his father.

"Every time I talk to my father, I tell him I'm sorry. I ask him to forgive me. I've come to learn how much I've hurt him. Know what he says to me? 'I forgive you, but for what?'" The tears broke the dam of his fingers. 

We talked about the time he's had here in jail, time to think about who has been affected by his decisions and actions. He's been here for months, and faces years of prison time. He's had time to think. His father has been living his life, working his job, caring for friends, maintaining what is important to him. He hasn't had the luxury of time to sit around and get resentful about the hurt his son has caused him.

"He's your dad. He loves you. He forgives you the best way he knows how. Do you believe him?"

"I believe him."

"Then why don't you tell him that? Tell him 'Thank you for loving me and for forgiving me.' Maybe he doesn't think you believe him."

We talked for a long time about people who want to pick a fight and the us-vs-them mentality that is rife in the jail--and outside too, I told him. He'd refused to chime in when one of his cellmates called the officers "pigs" and had chided him with, "Hey, they're human too." I was aware that I was listening to a man whose heart had stretched, who was gathering more people into his circle and not drawing lines to keep them out. 

Where is Jesus in this place? Oh right here. Really.

All this serious talk was interrupted by an announcement to the men in that jail section. An officer stood at his station to reprimand them about the rising noise level.

"Now I know you were told about keeping it quiet in here. I was standing right here when I told you."

Jaycey and I looked at each other and giggled. "He said that? Really?" Jaycey guffawed and because I was sitting where my face was visible to the other offenders in their dorms, I stifled a laugh.

"I have a blog," I told him, "and I write about stuff that happens in jail. That's going in the blog." He just laughed again.

25 December 2010

Finding the Way to Christmas

Ever since I began working at the jail last June, my ability to get lost or disoriented has been the source of many stories, mostly ones I tell on myself. How does one get lost on an elevator anyway? And how many times have I heard a disembodied voice intone, "You can't get there from here"?

That disorientation and lost-ness is a fine template for this Christmas season in jail.

Some of the disorientation is not my own. It is on the face of the puzzled man on the 7th floor who sees me from across his dorm room and just can't figure out what's wrong with this picture. He knows me, he's sure of it, but I am not in the right context for him to put a name to me. Until we talk and I mention the name of that prison where I worked for eleven years--then his face lights up and he says, "It's you!"

For some, there is a profound sense of not being where they intended to be at this time of year. What am I doing in a red jumpsuit and orange sandals, sharing a room with 19 other people? I should be cooking dinner, shopping for presents, decorating the tree. Jerry Springer rules the TV and I'm feeling mad all the time. What have I done with my life?

I should be in the living room, putting the finishing touches on that bike, setting up that new game, breathing in hot cocoa and peppermint. Instead, I'm sleeping on a plastic covered excuse for a mattress after standing in line for three hours for a chance to call home. And no one answered.

It's a time of unsettling poverty. I have to ask for Christmas cards to send home. I can't pick them out. They are nothing too fancy. There's not enough room to write all the things I want to say.

I'm weighed down with worry, guilt, remorse, disappointment.

The commercials that punctuate Jerry Springer's antics only throw bling in my face, taunting me, "Look what you can't have! You don't deserve this! You loser!"

I try to think about that family on the move, leaving their hometown to go to crowded Bethlehem, where no one wanted one more family in the mix, no one had room for one more chore, never mind one more baby.

Those parents, they weren't where they wanted to be, where they might have planned to spend this birthing night. There was all sorts of talk behind them: relatives who had too much to say, neighbors who asked pointed questions. And now there are angels and shepherds who just won't shut up.

"How do we get to the new king's place?" the travelers from the East want to know. They are headed in the right direction, but, like so many others, you can't get there from here, in Herod's court.

There are no Christmas trees at jail, no colored lights (although at least once a day, there is a Code Blue called for some medical emergency), and no holiday muzak to drive us all nuts.

Instead, there is the mess of humanity: stinky, smelly, unwashed, rude, abrupt, short-tempered. All the mess of humanity that God so loved.

There are moments, only a breath here and there, where the sweetness of wonder enfolds us and says, "Yes" to us. That's all. Just "Yes."

08 December 2010

Ruby Bridges teaches me

Ruby Bridges was six years old when she was the first African-American to integrate her school in New Orleans. The crowds were there, every day, teetering on the edge of being a mob, yelling hate. Ruby was escorted to school by federal marshals. The first grader showed up every day and so did the crowds.

Dr. Robert Coles, who has written about spirituality and morality in children, wanted to talk with her, so he sat with Ruby and her parents in their living room. "What do you think about when you walk into school every day, Ruby?"

"I pray for them."

"You do? Why?"

"Don't you think they need it?"

Being able to pray for others means believing there may be something more to them than what is on the surface. Don't you think they need it?

A man yesterday told me he'd been praying for a guy in his tank "who is just obnoxious." He didn't know why he was praying for him. He didn't like the other guy. It wasn't a part of his usual prayer to include anyone beyond his family and maybe his lawyer, on a good day. He was mystified by this summons to pray.

"But sometimes I think Jesus is telling me, 'It's okay. It won't hurt you to pray for him' and so I do. I suggested that maybe he was beginning to pray with Jesus, to feel the needs of the world in a small way. He was quiet for a long time.

Then I told him about Ruby.

"How old was she?"

Six. First grade.

"Thank you for telling me that. I'm going to be thinking about her for a long time."

So am I.

(Here's a link to Norman Rockwell's painting of Ruby.)

19 November 2010

And now, for a little good news

I write this on the day that the Department of Corrections announced the closure of a third prison in a year. You might think that's good news. Think of it, we don't need three prisons! But it really means more crowding at the prisons we have, and the loss of jobs and programs, and more tension behind the walls.

But there is good news. Those of you who have been around for a while may remember my writing about the Transitioning Offenders Program that started at the prison where I worked in Shelton. It was begun by men who noticed guys coming back to prison again and again, for violations of their parole or for new charges. They asked pointed questions: why are you back? what happened when you got out? what kind of help did you need that you didn't get?

The answers were basic: I didn't have a place to live. I couldn't find a job. I couldn't get connected to mental health resources.

From that, some creative types started combing the newspapers, looking for any resource that might be able to assist people coming out of prison. They collected envelopes and wrote letters to those agencies. Hundreds of letters went out and when the answers came in, the computer-savvy built a database that eventually contained over 8000 housing, food, clothing, employment, schooling, mental health, and other resources. All 39 counties of the state were covered.

They developed a questionnaire to compile a packet specific to the community an offender was going to return to.

They became advocates for each other: found treatment beds, helped get driver's licenses re-instated, provided the addresses for vital statistics in 50 states (do you know how many people don't have a copy of their birth certificate?), and on and on.

There's much more, but the reason I'm bragging today is that now there is a working website that details the work that has been done over the last six or seven years. I'm so very proud of what they have accomplished and now you can see it here.

14 November 2010

It's That Time Again

The requests are coming in for Christmas cards. No one asked for Halloween cards this year (they were a hot commodity at the prison a few years ago) but the push is on for Thanksgiving and Christmas cards. I managed to pick up a few dozen at a local Catholic supply store back in the summer.

But now! I've put a special collection bag right by my front door so when I pick up my mail, I can put all those wonderful cards into the bag. What cards? you ask. Why all those charities who want my money and send me half a dozen cards at a time. In just a few weeks, I have managed to stockpile almost a hundred cards. And I'm finding more around my house all the time. I think those fall under the "Stash Them Now. Use Them Later" rule. Except I usually forget exactly where I have stashed such treasures and come across them in July or some other unwieldy time.

This year, my disorganization is not so bad.

I've been finding all sorts of postcards too. Postcards are great to use in jail for getting messages to people. I try to make a point of having colorful postcards to send around. There is so little color inside the jail. A photo of earth shot by NASA. Stone circles in Ireland. A view of the city skyline. Anything with some color on it brightens up the cells, believe me.

Then there are the bookmarks. Bookstores are a great place to pick up bookmarks. I hope I'm giving someone an idea of where to go when she's released from jail--a bookstore! a library! a place where there are stories just like yours and NOT just like yours.

When I run out of bookmarks, I make my own. Interesting bits of wisdom. Scripture stories to ponder. A bit of poetry. At a gathering of jail chaplains in September, I had them write down their favorite sayings or Scripture passages on bright yellow cards. Now those cards go out in the packets of devotionals or other things people have asked for.

The weather has turned. It is more grey and there's more rain. Inside the jail, there's limited chance to see the outside--too many of the windows are frosted, not with frost, but with the type of stuff you just want to peel away. Whatever color we can bring inside, it's needed, no matter how small a bit it is.

21 October 2010

Tunnel Vision

I was thinking about tunnels today as I left the jail. Because I'd driven to work, my car was parked in the garage UP steep Goat Hill. Fortunately, someone had mercy on those of us who find it difficult to walk with the sidewalk bruising our noses, so there is a much gentler incline inside a building with a tunnel that leads to the elevator to the parking garage.

(Are you following me still?)

As I walked through the tunnel, I noticed the bits of debris that collect when people travel through a common space. I wondered where the lint had come from. There wasn't any trash lying loose, but there were threads and stuff that had accumulated from the passage of hundreds of people over the course of days.

And the thought that came to mind? "This stuff wouldn't be here if this tunnel was at the prison."

At the prison, the tunnel runs underground and connects the Receiving Units and the building that holds the infirmary and other medical checkpoints. It's a way to move people no matter what the weather and it is a relatively safe way to get people from one location to another. On the other hand, it's made of concrete, and last I heard, concrete and human heads are not equal players in any game.

The first time I walked through the tunnel, my supervisor from the diocese was taking me to Sunday services. Halfway through, I was wishing I had skates because it is one loooooooong tunnel. (Because we were also carrying boxes of supplies, I stopped at the store on the way home to buy a two-wheeled cart and used that for the next eleven years. I learn quickly.)

The tunnel had warnings on the wall, mostly saying stick to the center of the tunnel because the floors could be slippery. Down the center of the floor was bright yellow paint that may have been textured in a previous lifetime, but its current ability to keep pedestrians upright was questionable. For eleven years, no matter when I made the trip through the tunnel, day or night, there were two offenders swabbing the floor. We'd exchange remarks about the similarity to painting the Golden Gate Bridge: finish up one side and it's time to do the other.

If offenders were headed to the infirmary, someone would sing, "Follow the yellow brick road," and someone else would be yelling, "Shut up!"

The tunnel collected lint, candy wrappers, string, whatever could fall from a prison outfit. And someone was always there to clean it up.

Sometimes the tunnel became an obstacle course. It's underground and when it rains in Washington, which it does often, the tunnel leaks. First mopheads appear, just soaking up a little water.

Then buckets appear, five or six across making it almost impossible to walk the distance without getting wet. The water seems to discover where the buckets are and then drip just outside them. Then the big guns come out: horse troughs that collect lots of water. For a couple of months last year, at one spot in the tunnel, there were two horse troughs and two buckets and several mop-heads. Vaulting the horse troughs is unacceptable. Swimming wasn't an option.

And that spot in the tunnel? It was under the infirmary. No, I can't explain it.

I missed that tunnel today. I missed the walking-with kind of ministry that happened there, the short conversations that brought some reassurance or the promise of a visit or a laugh about the endless yellow road.

These days, I deal with elevators which have their own rules and protocols. Not as many chances for those brief conversations, but always the mystery of discovering whether or not I'm on the right one.

13 October 2010

Poetry for the Soul and the Body

I was at a parish retreat tonight, a wonderful gathering of the Raggedy Band of believers who make up St. Leo Parish. We had 1 Corinthians 12:12-26 to pray over (we are many parts, we are all one body...) and then moved into groups to talk about what "weighs on your heart." I told the group that I sometimes find it easy to go to "the dark side," but that tonight, that tendency was more than balanced by the elation of the rescue of the Chilean miners. I need that reminder of good news so I can maintain a sense of hope in my work and in my being.

Over and over again, both in our small group and in the larger group as we reported back, hope was a key word, and this parish is a place that both gives us hope and sends us out in hope.

We closed with this poem by William Stafford.

The Way It Is

There's a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn't change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can't get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time's unfolding.
You don't ever let go of the thread.

11 October 2010

A Chaplain's Tool--Who Knew?

Most of my work
is about fastening
the odd bits and pieces
--flotsam and jetsam--
of fragmented lives.

I use words
to stitch
the disparate
trying to choose
two scraps that
can tolerate each other
for a breath
just a

But in my office and on my desk
the tool of the moment
is a small claw
waiting to snatch and tear.

A pile of broken
misshaped metal
bears testament to the leavings
of the staple remover,
a small monument
to bindings ripped out
and fasteners unhooked.

The instructions are simple:
Only one staple per item
it's headed to the 11th floor
where people are sitting
in segregation
or the seventh floor where they
keep a suicide watch.

Staples are fasteners
holding tight,
meant to bring things together.

But staples can poke, cut, maim,
jab, they hurt.
I twist the metal
and build a monument to care.

04 October 2010

St. Francis of Assisi

Today is the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. This statue is in San Francisco, a much smaller version of the one I first came to know at Fisherman's Wharf. I love the silhouette of the statue. In the many versions that Beniamino Bufano crafted, this Tau shape is consistent.

Here's a version that is at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and another, with mosaics, that is at the Mondavi Vineyards. The Tau, a form of the cross that Francis wore, some say was in opposition to the Crusader's cross.

There is one other statue of Francis that I found behind a small hotel near the Presidio in San Francisco. You'd recognize the statue as a Bufano creation instantly, but Francis has his hands behind his back as he contemplates the life before and around him. I've never found it on the Web, and I wonder if that small place that had so many Bufano statues still exists.

I was introduced to Francis, Clare, and Assisi by Jesuit Fr. John Crocker who took a group of students from Rome to Assisi for a weekend in October. The train was packed. We had to stand most of the three-hour trip. Being in the town, going beyond the pilgrim/tourist track, we found a Roman ampitheatre up above the city, checked out the Roman forum underneath the church and plaza of Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary over Minerva--guess who won that battle!), and prayed in the cool afternoon at San Damiano. It was at San Damiano that Francis first heard God saying, "Go, rebuild my church, which is falling into ruins."

Francis was a literalist in those days, much like young 20-somethings the world over. He picked up bricks and started building, only later to discover that God was asking something more.

In Assisi, I discovered that saints were real people, and that real people were called to be saints. And I wasn't afraid to embark on the adventure. If I didn't get it right, surely God would bend the path as he had Francesco's.

Working with inmates, I sometimes talk about Francis, the spontaneous, good party-thrower, the friend who was good for a few bucks. He went off and did wild things, right up to the end of his life. When the Crusades were all the rage, not just for religious reasons, but for business as well, he set off, and then turned back, vowing to serve God, not politics. He was good for dramatic gestures and outrageous plans, and God used all that. He wrote poetry and loved his community. He knew at his core that he was part of all creation. There's a lesson to be learned there.

I can't keep copies of the Prayer of St. Francis in my office. That's a good thing. I don't bother saying, "You know he didn't write it." I just include his "Canticle of the Creatures" on the back side so there are two ways to pray with Francis.

This painting of Francis is by Cimabue, in the lower basilica. It is at eye-level, standing just apart from Mary on a throne with a couple of angels. It may be quite close to what Francis looked like, but more important is what the artist captured: how much like Christ Francis became.

And so should we all.

19 September 2010

Please pray...

A man committed suicide at the jail last weekend. Actually, he hung himself early Saturday morning and died on Tuesday. He was facing serious charges in another state and, in light of everything else that had taken a serious downward spiral since last spring, I think he was a man living without hope. Please pray for him, for his friends and family in that other state, and for the men who found him and tried to save him.

11 September 2010

From a Distance--9/11/2001

On that bright September morning nine years ago, I drove to Yakima from Tacoma for a chaplains meeting. My friend and I enjoyed the beautiful clear day, the colors of the leaves as we went through the mountains, and just being away from the work that occupied us at our separate prisons. We got lost in Yakima and stopped for directions, eventually making it to the meeting just a few minutes late.

But the meeting hadn't started yet. "A plane hit a building in New York City," someone said. More news trickled out, every cell phone in the place was put to work. And then the phones stopped working. Every chaplain from every state prison was in the room. We talked in anxious groups, mostly asking, "Now what?"

Not much later, someone was finally in touch with headquarters and we were told, "Go back to your institutions." We prayed together, sorted ourselves into various cars and vans, and we left. My friend rode back with another chaplain from her facility and I drove alone. We had used one highway to make the trip east. Going back, I got on Interstate 90, the road that links Seattle and Boston.

The freeway was quiet, but it usually is quiet mid-state. Unlike the I-5 corridor that runs north-south on the western side of the state that can seem like an unholy parking lot between Seattle-Tacoma-Olympia, I-90 is a chance to see farms, great rolling prairie, and no Mt. Rainier anchoring the horizon. I-90 also goes past the ski areas, once you're in the Cascades. In the winter, the overhead signs will change to warn of snow, the need for chains, whether or not Snoqualmie Pass is open--or closed once again because someone forgot traction devices.

An hour into the trip home, the overhead signs read, "Sea-Tac Airport closed." Radio stations were hard to get out there. It was sunny with a brilliant blue sky, the same as it was in New York, I found out later. I drove on, eventually making it past home in Tacoma to the prison in Shelton.

The prison was locked down, all activities cancelled. I went to the living units. Where there were televisions, they were turned on and the towers kept falling down, over and over again.

That evening, a priest from a local parish was scheduled to come in for his regular time with the men. We changed our plans and put together a prayer service. At seven that night, the chapel filled with over a hundred men of all faiths and none at all. We prayed for courage, for wisdom, for forgiveness, for healing. At nine, the men returned to their units. The priest and I headed out.

The next morning, the line outside my office stretched across the chapel. Several people had relatives who worked at the World Trade Center. Were they alive? Were they safe? The phone lines to New York were most often busy, so I took names and numbers. It would take more than two weeks to get the final word on the last mother who hadn't been accounted for. In the end, all these relatives were safe.

Rumors abounded in those first weeks. The worst one was about Marshall Law: Corrections officers would be released from their jobs to go fight "the war" and whoever was left in charge at the prison had permission to shoot to kill. The fear level skyrocketed. I spent some time on the Internet and tracked down some sanity. There was a kernel of truth in that mess. The rumor had roots in the Second World War.

The easy part? The "Marshall Law" was taken from the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe. Easy enough. (Does anyone still pay attention in history class? Or, maybe, like my own classes back in the early 70s, we never got that far.)

The more difficult part? Apparently, there was some plan related to the Japanese internment camps: if Japan attacked the US on US soil, those in the camps would be killed--or so someone said--and the guards would be drafted into the military.

With families demanding to know their son/brother/father was going to be okay in prison, even in these extraordinary circumstances, rumor control was essential.

More of the men went to religious services over the next month or so, and then, like what happened out in the community, attendance drifted back to its usual level. We handed out bibles and Qu'rans both for a while and encouraged different groups to sit down together to talk about their faith and its practice. There were good strong religious men among the inmates who were instrumental in keeping peace. In the end, there were no incidents at this prison of people being beaten for belonging to the "wrong" religion.

Four years later, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, some of this was repeated: so many people had relatives in the battered area. We hunted on the Red Cross website for relatives, tracked some to Houston or Baton Rouge. For one man, it was six months before he knew if any of his family had survived the flooding.

Events may seem to happen thousands of miles away, but the truth is we really sit at one table, and if someone is missing, we notice.

09 September 2010

A Chaplain's Shopping List

Tissue in the box
and the small packets

for the iPods
for the clock

Holy cards
pictures of Jesus
and Mary
and God

Serenity Prayer
Catholic prayer book
in English
in Spanish
Russian Laotian Polish
words to the rosary

a bible
with all the books
The new testament with
Proverbs and Psalms
is nice but
I need more

Give me this day
Our Daily Bread
and Living Faith
and The Purpose Driven Life
any devotional book you have

for the volunteers
Chocolate--make it Dove
or Ghirardelli
lemon drops

I'm worried about my kids
What's my girl doing right now
I need
peace of mind
or heart
my meds

Can I be forgiven

Will you
come talk to me
call my girl
tell my kids I'm all right
fix me up with housing
tell me where to get a hot meal
explain why suicide
is such a bad thing

Tissue in the box
and the small packets
holy books

a listening heart

I come with my shopping list
small reminders of
and hunger
for more than bread
that satisfies for
only a moment.

06 September 2010

What? Me Worry?

One of the jail volunteers and I were talking the other day about what people worry about when they're in jail. She made this observation:

"Men worry about what their women are doing, and with whom. Women worry about their kids."

She's right.

I'm learning more about the differences between jail and prison as I close in on the third-month mark for this new job. At the jail, I've seen people sometimes less than forty-eight hours after they were arrested. Some of them are still coming down off the drugs that brought them here. A lot of them are overwhelmed by the stories they've heard from people who've been around a while.

Last week, I talked with a man who has been sitting in the jail for two years and is now on his way to prison. (He got arrested, couldn't afford bail, waited for trial, went to trial, waited for sentencing=2 years.) He wanted to know what things would be like when he got to Shelton, the receiving prison for men in the state.

I was able to tell him he'd be in a two-person cell, rather than the 20-person dorm he'd been in for two years. That he'd walk downstairs to the dining hall if he were in unit 1 or 3. Once in unit 4 or 5, he'd be hiking to the dining hall two or three blocks away. He'll be trading in his red two-piece outfit for a grey or orange jumpsuit. And he'll be able to have shoes on his feet once again, not shower shoes.

The yard has real grass, not a concrete slab, and he'll be able to see trees in the distance, even the Olympic Mountains on a clear day. If he's lucky, he might see skydivers landing at the airport next door. He'd get to breathe fresh air, something that doesn't happen at the jail.

His body visibly relaxed as we talked. The jail had become so familiar and what he knew of prison was shaped by scare stories and "Lockdown" on TV. "It will be different," I told him, "but you'll have other things to look forward to, like books, magazines, and newspapers."

He was a little reassured. I hope there's someone at the prison who can catch him as he comes through.

19 August 2010

A Look Inside

Here's an article from the Seattle PI about the prison where I worked until May. Take some time to read the comment section as well. The attitudes there speak volumes.

Welcome to prison

05 August 2010

Getting Devotional in Jail

There's a great meme going around the blogs, asking for favorite devotions (which I always assume Catholics know about and everyone else needs an explanation, but I'm frequently wrong). I went to Catholic grade school for five out of the first six grades, which may explain a lot of things about how I grew up to be who I am. It certainly explains my love for church-related trivia.

My first two years were spent at Forest Ridge Academy in Seattle, administered by the Madames of the Sacred Heart in a great stone building on Capitol Hill. It has since become the Hebrew Day School and the Madames and their students moved east across Lake Washington and now reside in Bellevue. The one devotion I remember from those two years happened during Advent. Each student was assigned a ceramic lamb. A ribbon with the student's name was around the lamb's neck. A Nativity scene was artfully arranged one of the landings of the great stairway. Our task during Advent was to make our way up the stairs to the Nativity. And no, we didn't get to place ourselves. We were judged on our behavior each week, given a small card with a gold star if we'd been successful. I don't remember much about the gold stars.

I do remember that I was in the middle to back of the pack by the time we got to Christmas break. Did I care? Probably not so much.

Second grade, public school, CCD in someone's garage once a week. Must have learned all the appropriate prayers because I do remember making my First Communion that year, even if the CCD students were treated like second-class citizens because there wasn't any room for us in the one Catholic school in town. I only remember that we had to make sure our hands were pointed UP while we prayed and processed. If we pointed them down, we were praying to the devil, came the hissed whisper.

Third grade, back in Catholic school. We'd moved to California before the start of second grade, so it was the first year I could walk to school. There was Mass before school, and I think I went at least once a week, a hard-boiled egg in my pocket to eat afterward. (I got to hate hard-boiled eggs. By 8th grade and an unfortunate science project about egg development, I gave up eggs for a very long time.) In third grade, our readers had stories about the saints. Memorable? I liked the one about St. Tarcisius. His school friends wanted him to play baseball after school, but he was taking communion home to his grandmother. They beat him up. He died, but he died doing a good thing, right? [Most of which had nothing to do with the actual saint, who was not a schoolboy but an adult deacon, or maybe a 12 year old acolyte. Besides, baseball hadn't been invented yet. Someday I'd love to track down that reader.]

Sr. Terence was a Franciscan, wore the full habit, including a 15 decade rosary that made great sounds when she joined the jump-rope line. She also prayed in her own words for our special intentions.

I have some evidence from 4th and 5th grades of spiritual bouquets for various reasons and seasons. Should have used those for examples of inflation when I took Economics in high school.

Sr. Marion in 5th grade read us The Story of Bernadette. Two years later, half the girls who got confirmed chose Bernadette as their saint's name, including yours truly. And I wasn't the only one who went through a phase of really wanting Mary to appear to me. Or maybe have the statue in the church come down from the pedestal and chat for a bit.

By the time I was in 8th grade, things had shifted significantly in our household. I was the only one still going to church, but I had a new object of devotion and every night, without fail, I would go out in the backyard, look for the brightest star, and pray, "Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might have the wish I wish tonight. Please keep Davy Jones safe!"

Hey, at least I was still praying.

Fast forward too many years. I worked in a prison and now in a jail. The most common request is for a rosary, the second most common request is, "Show me how to use it." For those who weren't Catholic, or who had little Catholic background, we did it the simple way. Everyone knows the Lord's Prayer, so that became the first bookend, then the name of Jesus on ten beads, followed by the Glory Be/Doxology. That was a good first step.

I readily confessed that I was no good at praying the rosary "the regular way" when I was on my own. It's good to know how to pray it in a group, but my brain goes umpteen different ways when I'm on my own, and praying with a recorded version? I lapse into St. Joseph's Meditation. (What? You don't know that one? You do know St. Joseph got all his information in dreams, right? And when do the dreams come? When you are asleep!)

I borrowed from St. Ignatius' Examen of Consciousness and taught people to take time at the end of the day to ask two questions: What am I most grateful for today? What am I least grateful for?

Our Lady of Guadalupe continues to be a comfort for Hispanics and Anglos alike.

At Sunday liturgies, we blessed those who were moving on with an adaptation of St. Patrick's Breastplate: May Christ go before you and behind you. May Christ be on your left and on your right. May Christ be above you and beneath your feet. In all your ways, may you go with Christ.

We observe the liturgical seasons with cloth and cross and art. We mark the comings and goings, the special days of family life, the deep-rooted call for repentance and praise.

And there was the Prayer of God's name, simply inhaling and exhaling Yah-weh.

Mostly we learn to not be afraid of speaking to God or the host of God's Friends who pray for us.

Like you.

24 July 2010

"You Can't Get There from Here"

I was standing at the elevator on the 7th floor. I pushed the Down button. A voice asked, "Where to?" and I said, "Fourth floor."

"You can't get there from here." It was a nice voice, very patient.

I stared at the papers in my hand, a stack of requests from offenders who wanted to see a chaplain. The jail is a tower twelve stories high.

And you know elevators. They run up and down. I was on the seventh floor and needed to go to the fourth.

Oh. Wait a minute. The fourth floor with inmates was not in this tower. That fourth floor is in the West Wing. I had to go from the seventh floor to the third floor and transfer to another elevator.

And are there only two sets of elevators? No. That would be too easy.

On this particular day, I did manage to make it to the third floor and make the transfer. I got to where I needed to be.

But that isn't always the case.

I've ended up in the parking garage.

One day, I hit the button for the second floor, thinking I was headed back to my office. Instead, I found myself in a small hallway with four or five holding cells. I headed into the office where half a dozen officers were chatting.

"I'm a new chaplain," I announced. "I'm lost. What do you do in here?"

They had the grace to laugh.

Turned out those holding cells were for offenders waiting to go to court, and, handily enough, there were two courtrooms at the other end of this small hallway. The officers were waiting for the next round of sessions.

I knew those courtrooms. I'd never been in them, but from the hall near my office, I can see the signs for those courtrooms. I often see defense attorneys waiting out in the hall before their cases are called.

I asked the officers, "I don't suppose I could cut through the courtroom and go back to my office." No, they assured me. I couldn't do that.

I was so close.

I said my goodbyes and went back to the elevator. I told the Elevator Operator (who exists somewhere in the building, with cameras!) I wanted the third floor. Transferred to another elevator and went downstairs and back to my office.

Do you remember the early video game "Zork"? Every now and then, there were messages that said, "You are in a twisty windy passage." Must have been written by someone who had to deal with multiple elevators.

And for those of you wondering why I don't just haul up and down the stairs: in 2007, I broke the arch bone in my left foot. Six weeks in a boot. Last summer, I tripped over my own feet in my living room. Broke every toe in my right foot, except the big one. Six weeks in a boot. The feet never fully recovered. I don't do stairs. Or hills, which explains why I'm taking great delight in figuring out how to out-maneuver the hills in Seattle. Escalators!

07 July 2010

Okay, now it's real

I got a call early this afternoon, asking me to see a woman and let her know that her mother had died. You who have read this blog for a while know that death notifications are my specialty. Have tissue, will tell.

Except that I had been told that the sergeants are the ones who do the actual notification, then the chaplain is called in to deal with the aftermath. The notes in the files and on the bulletin board over my desk were very explicit, very clear.

Apparently no one told the sergeant, so I was the one to tell Kathie the bad news.

She howled when she found out, great wracking sobs, lots of tears. She had been trying to put some money together so she could go to California to help her mom. Nothing had worked. Then she got picked up on a warrant on Saturday and came to jail. She'd tried calling her family, but no one answered, or the phones were blocked and couldn't take a collect call. And then I came to her with this.

We prayed. And the men who met an hour later on another floor for a Communion Service prayed for her. So now I give her to you.

27 June 2010

Directionally Challenged

All I had to do was go to the courthouse, get my fingerprints done, and get my badge.

I went to the wrong building, after sitting out in the courtyard, smugly enjoying the fact that I was early.

I found an office with a title that seemed to fit what I was looking for--but I was in the wrong building. Uh huh. This was the County Administration building. I needed to be across the street in the Courthouse.

I also needed the bathroom. Spotted the familiar blue and white sign down a poorly painted hallway. Zipped inside and went into the stall.

"And tell me, Shannon, what was your first clue that you might be in the wrong bathroom?"

Maybe the fact that the toilet seat was up? Or that the contents hadn't been flushed?

It's a public bathroom, I told myself, get used to it.

I heard someone else come into the bathroom.

I noticed the shoes first.

And then the direction in which the shoes were pointing.

They were not pointing forward like my feet were.

I waited til he left and then hurried out before anyone else came in.

No, I hadn't noticed the urinal right next to the stall with the door. And no, I hadn't really read the sign outside that clearly said MEN with the appropriate drawing. And there wasn't any cloying perfumey smell that sometimes inhabits the women's room.

Went to the courthouse, found the right office, filled out the forms, hoping they wouldn't ask if I'd done anything illegal in the last ten minutes. Fingerprinting done. Here's the badge. Have a nice day.

Back to the office without incident.

24 June 2010

"There is no fresh air in this facility." UPDATED

That was the the important lesson last Wednesday night when I went through orientation for the jail. We were a mixed group: some AA/NA volunteers, several women who work with women in transition, a health care provider, a mental health care worker, an Americorps volunteer (who looked like he was just out of high school, but I'm sure that was due to my failing eyesight) and me, the new Catholic chaplain.

We had four hours to learn the ropes and the important stuff and take a brief tour. About the physical plant: no windows can open, if you're lucky enough to be in a room with a window. There is some fresh air in the exercise yard, but, the jail is built right next to the freeway, so the "yard" is all concrete and the air smells like exhaust. "There is no fresh air in this facility," we were told.

On our tour, we went to a floor that housed about 20 people per section. Everyone was dressed in red jumpsuits. They spend all day in that room. The calendar has turned to official summer, but it hasn't been very warm in Seattle yet. I could imagine a hot stretch of days in August, sitting in the same stinking clothes. I remember what my brothers' rooms smelled like. I'm sure this isn't a pleasant spot.

There are 1200 people in the jail, stacked up in a building that is 12 stories high. The top floor is dedicated to the fixing of electronics. Otherwise, the higher you are in the building, the more security there is, the more serious the offenders. It is a delicate balance to place people where they will not be hurt, or do harm to others, or be an occasion of uproar. Things shift often.

We got hustled out of our multi-purpose room because "we're bringing in a bunch of people." So off we went to the booking area to get our pictures taken for badges. Two dozen people were on their way to be booked into the jail--no, not the new volunteers, two dozen of the protesters who had closed down a busy downtown street at the height of rush hour for three hours. (Immigration reform is a hot ticket here.) Pictures taken, on to the tour.

We were done just after 10.

The end result for me? Friday I got my badge, in what I hear is absolute record time. As of Monday, the computer chip will be activated and I'll be able to get into the bathrooms! Even better: I'll be able to go above my office floor, start helping out with services, and start talking with the folks. That's what I've really been missing.

And now you know. "There is no fresh air in this facility." That's why I keep the office door open and the fan going.

13 June 2010

Bless me, friends, for I am homesick...

A couple of other bloggers are talking about sin and reconciliation today, and as I read and pondered, the familiar opening to the Rite of Penance and Reconciliation came to mind, except it began with what I put in the subject line: I am homesick!

Not homesick for home because that's where I am right now, typing away. So homesick for what? It took a few minutes to figure it out, but here it is: I am homesick for ministry.

Three Sundays have passed since I said my goodbyes at the prison. I went to my home parish the first Sunday. I was at my sister's in Oregon last week. Today, I pulled the blankets over my head and went back to sleep.

I have finally moved the four boxes of things I brought home from work into the office space, freeing up the floor in the living room. I'll go through them tonight; to file or to toss will be the question. (Given the fact that it has been 12 years since I left parish work, and that there are still at least four of those boxes jammed into a closet after a move where I tossed out 75 percent of what I owned, this is a major attempt on my part to start a new job with far less clutter than I could.)

I am missing the conversations I had with the men I worked with, usually something that began simply enough. "How are you?" "Fine." "Really? You're not looking fine." "Well, actually---" and we'd head for my office and the box of tissues and close the door.

"I just stopped in to tell you that I passed my GED." "Where are my gold stars when I need them? That's terrific!"

"Could I talk to you for a minute? I don't want to take up your time." "It's your time. That's why I'm here."

I miss preaching. I miss saying things that build a sense of connection and recognition, I miss the arched eyebrows and suppressed laughter when I nail something that more than a few people have been thinking. I miss the profound silence of a room full of 70 people bending their heads in prayer. I miss the raggedy band who come forward for communion with their various responses: A-MEN, Sister! Thank you. Glory to God. And also with you. Peace, Sister. What am I supposed to do now? (Eat it, I say.)

I miss the grace-full moments that are always a surprise, even as I always expect that God will provide.

The upside to all of this is that I will be starting work on Wednesday at the jail in downtown Seattle. Time to brush up on why I do ministry and how I do it.

You are a beloved child of God.
And so is everyone else you meet.

Help me, help me, help me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
(with thanks to author Anne Lamott)

I'm grateful for all the people who share their ministries in so many different ways with so many different people. In a world aching for God's touch, what a reason to celebrate the gifts of all God's people.

10 June 2010

Valley of the Inbetween

Three full weeks of vacation and I'm still fidgety about it. I haven't taken this kind of time off since I was a school teacher back in the 70s and 80s. In those days, the ten weeks of summer were a time to catch up on some required course, haunt the local library, and one year, spend 10 delirious weeks in Assisi, Italy.

Every doorway in this town is related to something in Francis' life: here's the stall where he was born, the post office was once a church where he was baptized, this hole is where his father threw him for a time out, this bishop's courtyard is where he stripped himself naked and renounced his father... I came away from that summer knowing that every town is holy, carries the marks of the holy people who live there. While you can find your way from one end of Assisi (Basilica of St. Francis) to the other (Basilica of St. Clare) by following all the souvenir shops, the paths through our modern sainted towns is not always so easy.

High above the city is the Hermitage, originally a series of caves cut into the hillside used by Francis and his followers as retreat space. The walk up the hill from town is steep, but manageable. The woods are gracious and inviting. The only "say what" moment you might have is when the limousine almost runs you down on the hairpin turn. (It's a taxi.)

And this is one of my favorite spaces in Assisi. It's beneath the basement of the Basilica of St. Francis. On the top floor are the famous Giotto frescoes. On the middle floor, a wealth of artwork that includes what is probably a good representation of what Francis actually
looked like. And then, down a steep stairway made of rock, to a chapel that fits fewer than fifty, there is the resting place of St. Francis. He was buried here, secretly, because his bones were worth big money and the Franciscans didn't want to lose him to Rome. Notice the bars around the casket, as well as the stone. No chance of an escape from here.

I loved to go down into the cellar and sit in a pew, watching the pilgrims come and go. Dozens of different tour groups speaking every language under the sun came throughout the day. Whatever else we might have had in common, we shared a love for a man who defied the convention of his day and chose Jesus as his friend and companion.

Tonight I look at the image again and think how seriously connected are the different pieces of my life. I didn't know thirty years ago that prison bars would be such a big part of my life in the new century. The fact that Francis spent a year as a prisoner of war has always been part of the story, as has that piece about his father tossing him into a home prison.

Assisi came to mean a breathing space for me. I found fresh delight in the ordinariness of human life lived in the midst of war, politics, art, family squabbles, church craziness. When I moved into prison work, I discovered that rare joy again. No matter the circumstances or the really bad decisions, here is a place where the Great Dance happens at all hours of the day and night.

This last picture is taken from the plains below the town. Assisi stretches across the hill, but you're standing at the gates of the Assisi War Cemetery--and it says that in English, not Italian. Hundreds of Allied troops are buried here. Not many people visit, but it is part of the mystery and draw of Assisi for me.

Three weeks between prison and jail have been a kind of Assisi for me, allowing me to remember Who loves me, Who calls me, Who I serve. I cannot wait to pass through the gates into another city-on-a-hill and to start looking for the souvenir shops full of stories.

01 June 2010

Cloud Watching

First, you should take some time and read Sherry's post about "Looking up and finding clouds." That's what put me in the mood to respond here. As I make the adjustment to having LOTS of time on my hands between jobs, I'm hungry for some good cloud-watching time. (Unfortunately, the weather as it is in Tacoma these days, if I turn my face up, I'm likely to get a bucket of rain in it. It's JUNE already. Knock it off!)

There was a day, some time back, when I had a string of guys in my office at the prison. All of them were struggling with being in prison, the length of their sentences, the time they hadn’t heard from family, the sameness of the routine. By the time the seventh one had come in, I was ready to suggest a support group.

Instead, I made the same suggestion to each: When it’s time for yard, go out and lay down in the grass and look up.

The clouds were particularly wonderful that day, scudding across the sky and turning themselves into shapes begging to be named.

At prison, when you’re walking around, the concrete and the fences are always part of the picture. The trees, although there are many, are far beyond the fences. (“I haven’t hugged a tree in six years,” one of the men wailed.) There’s always a reminder that you’re locked up and that fact isn’t going to change any time soon.

Flat on your back, looking at the clouds, there is no concertina wire to be seen. The sky can look like the ocean and you can sail away on the clouds.

I wondered later if I might have caused some trouble, if a group of guys had taken my advice and just laid down in the expanse of grass and looked up–would someone take that as behavior needing discipline?

I noticed as the weather got warmer there were more guys basking in the sun during yard. Some of them were watching the clouds.

What do you do when your soul needs a stretch?

27 May 2010

"I will never forgive you."

He sounded very certain, as if he'd thought it over for a few days and knew he had to tell me. "I'll never forgive you," he said again, shaking my hand. Then his ears turned pink and his cheeks flushed dark red.

He stammered. "I mean, what I mean to say is, well, I won't forget you." I knew that.

It was Sunday morning and we'd celebrated Pentecost. The announcements were made, schedules noted, what to expect next week. Then I asked, "Is anyone leaving this week?" looking through the room for those who would be transferring to another facility or going to work release or maybe, just maybe, headed home.

I raised my hand.

Five men joined me up front. Together we faced the seventy who blessed us and all of us prayed, "May Christ go before you and behind you. May Christ be on your left and on your right. May Christ be above you and beneath your feet. In all your ways, may you go with Christ."

There was a flurry at the end, all of us wanting to say something memorable. Then they were gone.

After lunch, I came back to the facility for two more services. At the scanner, I saw a familiar looking man waiting to go in to see his son. "Do you remember me?" he asked.

"The face, yes, and we've gotten a little greyer since I last saw you." He told me his name and I remembered him immediately. Brent was at the prison when I started all those years ago. He's been out of prison for 10 years; he's doing well, but this son of his is another story.

"I wondered if I might see you today while I was visiting."

I shook my head and laughed. "Today is my last day here. I'm going to a new job." We spent some time catching up and I went back to the chapel very much aware of the full circle gift.

At the very end of the day, with everything packed and sitting outside the door, a man came into my office. "My brother died in January and I haven't been able to talk to anyone about it." He struggled hard to keep his chin firm. I explained I would send an email to a couple of people so he could talk to someone in the next day or two. I handed him the book where we keep the names of those who have died and told him to write his brother's name there. He started to write. "This is hard," and then he started to cry.

I passed the box of tissues and listened to him talk. The email got written in between. Just a few minutes, the building was closing, but it was enough for him to be heard and tended to. Another full circle. So much of my time has been spent listening to grief, it's fitting that it should be one of the last things I do.

Always a surprise. Always a gift. In all our ways, may we go with Christ.

18 May 2010

Ten Day Early Release

Well, this being prison, it had to happen. My last day at prison will be Pentecost Sunday.

Release dates are important in prison. There is a great deal of calculating one's actual date to walk out the gate. I tease the guys about "DOC arithmetic," but it's more true than funny.

Someone standing in court, having been convicted, gets sentenced to a certain number of months. Not years. It's always in months. Why? I don't know. So say that someone gets a sentence of 57 months. Do the math. That's four years and nine months.

Now, if that person actually sat in county jail waiting to go to trial, then went to trial and was convicted, the time in the county jail actually counts toward that 57 month total. Not always day for day. That would depend on the particular county. I've known guys who spent up to two years waiting to go to trial and were able to apply 600-700 days to their sentence. And some who were able to apply much less.

Much of the stress at the Reception Center is caused by county paperwork not catching up so the computer shows a release date that seems much further out than it should be.

And then DOC arithmetic kicks in. Some crimes are eligible for half-time, some for a third. If you're in on a drug sentence and you'll get treatment inside, other calculations must be made.

Eventually the numbers settle down and when I look at a guy on the computer, I see a date that refers to his Earned Release. That phrase means, "This is the earliest he will get out, if he behaves. He could go to his maximum date, but this is the one we'll plan for." That date can be up to ten days earlier than his minimum sentence (all calculations working in his favor). Most of the men I know work pretty hard to make that 10 day early release a reality. If they are going to be on supervision, it means getting housing arranged and support in the community. Sometimes it means asking for a transfer to another county (the current rule is that, no matter where you committed your first crime, you must return to the county of your first felony conviction).

If you were 15, visiting relatives across the state, and took Grandma's car for a joyride, and got convicted of that, guess what, you're going back to No Name County, even if you own a home and your own business and have been living in the big city seven counties away for the last 30 years.

Again, you wait on the confirmation of housing; the community corrections officer has 35 days to check it out, and that could run right up to the Earned Release Date. Someone finally tells you if you get the 10 day early release, and you can really start counting down.

And that, in a way, is what has happened to me. I had my sights set on May 30th, but this coming Sunday will be my last day. Good thing it is Pentecost, because the day is perfect for new beginnings and optimism and summing up the essence of the Good News.

I made up prayer cards for the men as a going-away gift. They are postcard size. On the front is a map of the world with flags marked in different countries. Printed on the front is part of St. Patrick's Breastplate:

May Christ go before you and behind you.
May Christ be on your left and your right.
May Christ be above you and beneath your feet.
In all your ways, may you go with Christ.

On the back:

You are a beloved child of God.
And so is everyone else you meet.

You need only two prayers:
Help me, help me, help me.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Choose a spot on the map.
Pray for the people there.

I am praying for you.

In the parlance of the prison, I have four days and a wake up, but there's really only tomorrow in the office, and then Sunday. What an amazing adventure.

13 May 2010


I'm leaving prison.

While I haven't had the elegant countdown like so many of the men I've worked with, as of today, it is seventeen days and a wake-up. Drama Queen that I am, the men will get the news on Sunday at the end of the service. My last day will be May 30th.

However, it's not the end of detention ministry.

In mid-June, I'll be headed north to Seattle to become the Catholic chaplain at the King County Jail. There's a great group of volunteers there, many who have been ministering in the jail for years. I expect to learn a great deal from them as we work together.

This has all happened very quickly, and yet...

I tend to do my career in 10-12 year chunks: 10 years teaching high school, 12 years in parishes, and just last Sunday, I celebrated my 11th anniversary at the prison. In 2008-2009, I was in a pastoral leadership program, hungry to stretch myself, but not feeling the need to move on. And now this.

Recently I reflected that "I sometimes do things on a whim that turn out to be exactly the right thing" and that is what this new move feels like.

"So where's God in all this?" my spiritual coach asked.

"Stirring things up!" was my immediate response.

Remember "Man of la Mancha"? Toward the end of the play, Sancho Panza shouts, "Adventure!" That's what I'm feeling this morning. More to come.

09 May 2010

Mother's Day in Prison

The air is thick with emotion here today. Our worship aid had "Happy Mother's Day" printed in red, but there wasn't a single intercession for mothers in the Prayers of the Faithful. One of the Protestant services began: "Every man in this room has broken his mother's heart." Oh great, the Guilt Sermon, I thought.

Back in the days when the chapel handed out greeting cards, there was always a big rush on Mother's Day cards, starting right after St. Patrick's Day. The requests would come in: for mother, for wife, for sister. I wanted to draw the line with the guy who wanted six cards for his babies' mamas. Yikes.

In the past few weeks, mothers have been in the hospital, laid off from work, lost their apartments, gone on a trip, won't answer the phone. Some of the mothers died this year, and it's showing in their sons' eyes. Over and over, "She was the best mother in the world" even if she did introduce me to crack or meth or alcohol. Whoever she was, there's some love there. It may be fractured, broken, shattered, but it's there.

I got the "Happy Mother's Day!" greeting all day, followed immediately by, "Are you a mother?" I am. She's 29 and has children of her own now.

I left work early to see my mom. She's at a nursing home, living with Alzheimer's still after at least 12 years. Lots of flowers from the siblings, and chocolate. I brought a mocha frappe which was a hit.

Today also marked my 11th anniversary as the Catholic chaplain here. I can't wait to see what happens next.

02 May 2010

Did you know...

we prayed "for our deadly departed" today.

Pamphylia is the source of all church pamphlets.

and listeria (wicked stuff if you ever come across it) had its origins in Lystra. (Maybe I'm glad it wasn't read as Lysistrada. That would have been tough to explain to a roomful of men.)

Antochi wasn't on my travel itinerary. Maybe next time.

We had fun today with the readings. Can you decipher this?
613 --> 10 --> 2 = 1

There were a couple of empty seats in the classroom-church this afternoon. We named each of them: Sudan, Brazil, Ireland, Asia. They were reminders of the bigger church we are a part of, people we pray for, who pray for us. And the gift in that? A man who was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan told a bit of his story. The Body of Christ weeps.

T-Shirts and Bumper Stickers

"If you don't like my attitude, STOP TALKING TO ME!"
"I'm up. I'm dressed. What more do you want?"
"Jesus is coming. Look busy."

I realized this weekend that homey bits of commentary don't have much of a place in prison, certainly not of the temporary kind. Tattoos are a different story altogether. But the t-shirts and bumper stickers of the world outside of prison don't make it past the fences here.

Given the wide variety of bumper stickers and T-shirts, I should probably be grateful I'm not assaulted with them all day. Instead, I pay more attention to the spoken word. I don't cringe too often, but I'm tempted to say, "Language, gentlemen, language!" and sound like a school-marm.

This morning I listened as a young man begged his father not to give up on him. It was just one screw up, he pleaded. His father had asked him to tell the truth, and he was telling the truth. No, he hadn't spent the night at home as the probation officer directed. Yes, he had had a beer or two and smoked a little weed. "But please don't give up on me!" He crumbled into the chair, yanked several tissues from the box, finally said goodbye. Then he sat in silence. He's here for a violation of his probation. He may be looking at several more months in prison, and this after he just served two years. It was too much freedom, he said. He needed treatment.

"I screwed up so badly. My dad is so upset. I knew it as soon as I was arrested." He vented for a while, trying to sort it all out. The circles he drew got tighter.

Finally, we talked about the language we use when we're upset, when we really don't have the right words to encompass the feelings. "Your dad is upset. He's disappointed. He invested something of himself in you and your life after prison. He's feeling used, as if all the effort went for nothing. The only words big enough to get your attention aren't swear words. They are words like, 'I can't do this anymore. I don't know why I bother. You can't come home.'" He nodded.

Too bad there's not a t-shirt that says, "I'm sorry!" on it that I could issue. Maybe a little time will create space for them to talk again, try again. Maybe.

Thank God we don't get just one chance, one failure doesn't doom us. Or do we believe those "big words" that seem to send us to exile?

19 April 2010

I'm Just Saying...

Here's your warning: there's graphic, explicit stuff in this post.

There are some things you folks in the regular pews just miss because you are where you are. While I never hear announcements about a car with its lights on or doughnuts after Mass, I'm willing to bet no uniformed officer interrupts one of the readings because he's looking for a couple of guys who have left something suspicious in their cell.

And your service probably hasn't been stalled because the loudspeaker is used to announce, "Pill line!"

And people don't line up to leave fifteen minutes into the service because the gym just opened up.

Lots of other things you probably see and hear, but not those.

And I'm guessing your pastor has never had to write someone up for masturbating in the front row in the middle of the homily.

Admit it. You just want to attend my church. You really do.

14 April 2010

The Sunday Routine

There is more to my Sunday than prison, communion services, pastoral counseling, and checking in with volunteers. When I get home in the late afternoon and open the front door, the Sunday paper that I had to kick inside at 6am is waiting for me. I take it to the back bedroom where there's a recliner and weed out 75% and then settle in to read.

I always finish with Section B of the Seattle Times. This is the section with the local (versus national and international) news and four--yes, I said four--pages of obituaries. I have had a long love affair with obituaries and their companion, cemeteries.

(My sister and I went to Ireland together years ago. After arriving at Shannon Airport, we got our rental car, made it through the maze of the parking lot that is designed to get you used to driving on the left, and set out. Our first stop? A cemetery. I think we were also looking for a bathroom, but it was a cemetery and we spent a good amount of time wandering around in there.)

Anyway, the obituaries are always the last thing I read. By that time is almost 7 and I'm starting to snooze, and a little nap in the recliner is not a bad thing. Last Sunday, I read through those four pages, all kinds of stories about all kinds of folks I will never meet in this world.

Then I took up my yellow pad and wrote:


Unlike the other souls you will meet and greet on the surrounding page, Shannon O'Donnell did not go peacefully to her heavenly home. She went kicking and screaming, protesting to the very end. She wasn't done with life. She left things unfinished. She was still mad about many things and clearly hadn't mastered the art of "Let go and let God."

She wasn't done laughing about the absurdity she tripped over. She hadn't protested all the injustice she'd seen. She let some friendships go stale and didn't put out much effort to rekindle them.

She talked about writing a book. It was always in process. It didn't get done. No matter what the deadline, she managed to elude it. She was good about producing short things on deadline, but only short things. Stuff made for the long haul? Forget it.

She promised a lot. She couldn't do it all. She helped some people, hurt others. She wasn't always sorry.

As she leaves, she borrows a line from her youngest brother, "So long, suckers!"

Sundays at prison, always an adventure, and afterward, who knows where the brain goes??

30 March 2010

A Poem for Holy Week

These few lines were in a religion textbook that I used back in my first career.

'The Holy Supper is spread within,
And the many candles shine,
And I have waited long for thee
Before I poured the wine!'

Do yourself a favor and follow the link. Savor the whole poem by Robert Buchanan.


The textbook was These Stones Will Shout by Mark Link, SJ.

I'm finding myself in everyone else's shoes this Lent.

22 March 2010

Forget the Past. I'm Doing Something New---God

Having no elect or candidates this year, and being tied to the worship sheets that we get from Los Angeles, we read Cycle C yesterday, the story of the woman caught in adultery... or the men caught in their BS, though I rarely hear it referred to in that way.

I was struck by several things. The Isaiah reading begins with an invocation of memory, a reminder of what God did in the past. "Remember when I hauled your butts out of slavery? The horses and chariots and charioteers got stuck in the mud and drowned (and you were freed, remember?)" And then "Forget the past. I'm doing something new," namely making the desert, a place where you could die of thirst, a place where you find refreshing water. So remember, then forget.

And then this woman dragged before Jesus as people try to pin Jesus down like some prize butterfly. Jesus doesn't play their game. He just suggests who should go first when they start tossing stones.

But the rocks are too heavy and the accusers go away. Finally, it's Jesus and this woman. "No one left to condemn you?"

"No one," she says.

"Neither do I. Go home and from now on, avoid this sin."

And this is where I want to say: "Easy for you to say, Jesus!"

This woman has to go home, back to her neighborhood and all the people who left behind their washing and cleaning and marketing and chat to witness her being dragged out of her home (is that where she was caught?) and off to the Temple area. Before she even gets home, the story has run ahead of her. The shame! The scandal!

She's got a new life, according to Jesus, but she has to go home. Will the neighbors accept her as a woman with a new life?

If this story had been in any other gospel, she might have left everything and followed Jesus.

And right about here, someone is asking, "How did you get to this point?" Easy. I work in prison. And the men I spoke to on Sunday have committed all sorts of crimes. Some of them have had that encounter with Christ that has changed them, given them a new freedom, welcomed them into a new life.

But what happens when they meet up with old friends from the old life? Will those changes be believed? Usually not. Even close family members are slow to believe that change has really happened.

Okay--but that's later, down the road, maybe years from now.

What about here, in this place? How do we make room for the person who has changed, for the one who has heard, "Go and sin no more" from Jesus? How can we best put into practice the reconciling community?

I don't have too many answers, but I need to ask the questions.

17 March 2010

Signs of Spring in Prison

1. The garden behind my building was rototilled on Monday two weeks ago.

2. It snowed and hailed that same day.

3. There is more than one person walking the track in the small yard.

4. Two of the half-courts are busy with games of "Horse."

5. The pickle ball court is full and has people waiting to play.

(Lest you think we have some huge recreation space, the "courts" are about the size of a couple of driveways.)

6. Softball and soccer compete for attention.

7. If you walk down the hallway in the infirmary, the injuries have shifted from winter basketball to spring baseball, notably, more black eyes from a misjudged baseball.

8. The swallows are back!

9. The yard is open at night.

10. I go to work in the light and come home in the light.

02 March 2010

File This: For Another Season

or maybe even sooner. Why is it I get good ideas once a season has already begun?

We make a big deal about being part of the Body of Christ here at the prison. Okay. Truth is I make a big deal about it. I can drive to several different prisons within an hour or three of my home. Not one of them has a sign telling you you're getting close to a prison until the turn down the actual road. Very strange. For my particular prison, there are three exits to the local town. You have to pass by all of them, and go past the airport, and then some, before you ever see a sign for the place where I work.

That's the physical distance between us and the town.

Then there's the distance that we are from regular life and family. Most of the men who come here came from some other county. Most of their phone calls are long distance. Some of them faced time in county jail that was accompanied by newspaper and TV stories determined to excavate the Grand Canyon between the offender and the victim.

For the offenders, there is a certain kind of impatience that is extended to family. "Don't they know I need to hear from them?" "What are they doing out there?"

Similar questions from family: I'm busy here! I'm trying to hold down two jobs, manage the kids, deal with people asking me questions, and I don't have the energy at the end of the day to write you a letter because I just hung up on three bill collectors.

There are some generous folks who pray specifically for the men in this prison. They stretch around the globe, but it's the parishioners in town who sometimes break our hearts. "They're praying for us?? I thought they'd just want us all to disappear."

There's a world map hanging on one wall in the chapel. It undergoes various transformations. One year, I put up Post-It notes and string to identify where disasters happened around the globe. Someone asked me, after six months, "Could you put some good news up there? This is getting depressing." He was right.

So here's my thought. I'm going to get a map of the world and cut up the countries. Then I'll glue one country (or region--China's awfully big, as are Canada, the US, and Russia, now that I think of it) on an index card. Every guy that comes in my office will get a card and an assignment to pray for the people in that place.

And I'll expand that: if you have a postcard of a place or people you love, send it to me. Put your prayer request on it, leave your street address off. We'll put your postcard in the prayer basket and someone particular will be praying for you.

I'm thinking it's a good project to begin on Easter Sunday. What better way to spread the Good News?

You can send cards to:
The Catholic Chaplain
PO Box 900
Shelton WA 98584

Thanks for remembering this wonderful portion of the Body of Christ.


27 February 2010

"Love comes in like a refugee..."

That's Leonard Cohen singing in the background. I want a whole CD of different artists singing his "Hallelujah." I've been playing his music in the car as I've been making trips to Seattle and Shelton and Seattle and back home again. It has been raining and he has the perfect voice for weather like this. Never mind that the daffodils and crocus are a month ahead of themselves and the cherry trees are flinging themselves into bloom. Sometimes it's just a good day to hunker down and read a book or listen to music that brings the heart to the edge of tears.

We are full into Lent at the prison and in the past few days, I've dealt with a few men who have brave ideas about how to spend the season.

There is a man in the Closed Observation Unit (that's down in the Mental Health ward) that someone asked me to see and assess. "Be careful. He's been having a hard time staying clothed in there." Okay, I was warned. Ben was dressed when I saw him, standing straight in his white jumpsuit, staring at the wall, praying. He'd launched himself into a fast, said he was embarrassed that people were asking him about it.

He didn't want to talk to me about it. "It's personal," he said. So I offered him the "wisdom of the ages" and told him about others who have gone out into the desert to fast and pray. I didn't get specific and tell him about Simon who was a pole-sitter. But I did say that people go out to the desert to meet Mystery, to demand an accounting from God, to strip away what isn't essential. And, I said, "they come back from time to time to share what they have learned with others."

When he told me he was praying, I nodded. Prayer's a good thing to do. I told him there were a number of people who would be praying for him, named a few places on the globe where some of the partners live. "Why don't you choose a place on the map and pray for the people in that place? I think Haiti may be well covered, but Cameroon might need extra prayers."

He cracked a smile.

He's still fasting and praying, even though he knows that nine missed meals equal a food strike and things can get serious after that. I'll check on him in the morning and see where his prayer has taken him.

Chuy came to my office asking for a picture of Jesus on the cross. This being Lent, you'd think I'd have a whole collection, but I didn't that afternoon. I finally pulled a copy of the Stations of the Cross off the shelf, with one picture of Jesus crucified on the front cover. Chuy took it eagerly.

"I want to make a copy of this, a drawing, but with my face on it." He plans to have a ministry when he gets out of prison, helping people with the little things: delivering groceries, giving a ride to the doctor's office, dropping things off at the library. "But I want to have a t-shirt, like a uniform, so people know I do it in the name of Christ, that I am crucifying myself. That's what he told us: to crucify ourselves."

We talked for a bit about his heart's desire and then I reminded him that Jesus told us to "pick up your cross and follow me," nothing about crucifying ourselves. He looked puzzled. I told him his heart was in the right place, "But go look at the Last Supper story in John's gospel. Jesus washes feet and tells his disciples to do the same." Chuy's face burst into a grin.

"A washing bowl! A towel! Dirty feet! Hands doing the washing!" If he'd had a pencil, the drawing would have been done.

Enough suffering comes our way as it is. Just ask the Chileans and the Haitians. But washing feet? Certainly we can do that.

Just remember to come back and tell us what wisdom you have gained on your journey.

12 February 2010

Walter Bruggeman, where are you?

It is Walter Bruggeman who insists that good preachers must have the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other, isn't it? The gospel and daily life have to have a conversation if any of it is going to make sense.

However, I'd like to invite Fr. Bruggeman to prison one of these days.

It happens, often enough, when there is a disaster somewhere in the world, or more specifically, in the United States, someone at the prison will have a relative in that place.

Remember 9/11? Someone way out here in the Northwest had a father working in the North Tower.

When the Columbia shuttle exploded? Right in the backyard of a man's sister in Texas.

Tsunami in Southeast Asia? Do you know how many Pacific Islanders are imprisoned in Washington State?

Hurricane Katrina? We burned up the computer wires trying to get in touch with the Red Cross and find families in the Diaspora.

Somehow we missed out on the Haiti connection, at least a direct one, but a young woman who'd attended high school in Tacoma died at the orphanage where she worked in Port au Prince.

Early last week, we got word that a man's brother was in the trauma hospital in Seattle with gunshot wounds. While I waited on hold to confirm the news, I pulled up the Seattle newspapers website and read about a man who'd tried to rob an armored car. The hospital couldn't confirm or deny his presence at the hospital.

And then there was the mother who called to say her niece had been killed in a drive-by shooting. Even while I got the information from her, I was pulling up another news site. It was on the police blotter, to be followed by longer articles later.

There is a shadow side to all this. Many of the men I work with have been in the newspapers themselves. Their sentencing may have warranted a paragraph or two. Maybe there were several articles, interviews with victims, drawn-out appeals that frustrated everyone. Not everyone makes the news, but many do.

I keep the newspaper in one hand, or in my computer bookmarks, not just to read the news, but sure that I will find a familiar name.

09 February 2010

What's Right in Front of Me

Early Sunday morning, I stopped by my home parish, St. Leo in Tacoma, to pick up communion for the day's services. It wasn't 6:30 yet, not officially dawn, but in front of the church there were three men sleeping on the benches. St. Leo's sits on the Hilltop, straight up from downtown, just blocks from the county jail (where people are released at 10pm) and several hospitals. The block houses a number of vital ministries: a food bank, a hot meal kitchen, a medical clinic. The Catholic Worker folks have a house on the next block and there are gardens that have taken over abandoned lots with lots of vegetables when the season turns. It's a busy place. Many of the men I meet at prison have been to St. Leo's over the years. I worked at the parish for seven years, and every now and then, I tease one of the offenders, "You weren't the guy I saw peeing on the wall, were you?" Sometimes a guy will look startled and a bit guilty.

Sunday, three men sleeping on the benches and it was cold. I thought, "This is something I don't see at the prison." The proximity of obvious poverty is missing at the prison, though it shows up in other ways. I'm glad I worked at the parish for as long as I did. There are traces of the experiences there that help me to connect to the men I see now. Those moments of connection are important. They establish the beginnings of a bond.

Looking back over this day, I see that I am always making those connections one way or another. To a rosary-seeker this afternoon, I asked, "Are you related to Fr. John M?" He raised his eyebrows and said, "I don't know, but the last name isn't that common. Maybe!"

Another had a hint of an accent. "You sound like you're a long way from home. Where's your family?" "New Orleans." "Really? I lived in the Ninth Ward for two years and taught down there." (Both of us immediately lapsed into N'Awlins talk and named street corners and landmarks in the area, and cheered the Saints.)

When a man came in trying to take up far less space than his body needed, I took his name and DOC number for the property sheet for his new rosary and then asked, "Are things okay? You look like you're trying to blend into the wall." "I don't do people," he said, shrugging a shoulder toward the people still waiting to get into my office.

My second thought on seeing the sleepers outside the church was that they could easily be men I'll see at prison someday, or that some of my guys have spent time on the streets, finding shelter and a few minutes of unguarded slumber.

So when we were in the middle of our Word and Communion Service, I spoke of the brothers on the benches and we prayed for them: that they would be safe, that they would find shelter and peace, that they might know they are a part of the Body of Christ, loved and prayed for by men who will not see them this week, but may know them in years to come.

30 January 2010

End of January, Full Moon, What's Next?

How about something purely personal? My brain is fuzzed with both religion and politics these days and I've been wrestling with a big hunger that didn't have words to describe it. Top Ramen was not fitting the bill and neither was chocolate. I didn't want to go anywhere. My Thursdays (beginning of my weekend) have been spent in exhausted slumber.

Couldn't write. (I see ya, Fran, and raise you.) Even reading was a bust. For someone who used to read by the bathroom light visible through the frosted glass or by the little orange nightlight, not being able to read is something truly serious.

I checked out The Solace of Fierce Landscapes from the library. Twice. Only made it to the middle of the book in six weeks. Got mouthy at work--not something I do out loud very often. But when I was asked for at least the 1795th time in 10 years, "How are Catholics different from Christians?" my answer was, "We were here first."

It could have been worse.

But there's been this nagging hole in the pit of my stomach and the only thing I could attach it to was the Heidi-girl. Let me explain.

It began back about this time in 1991. I'd been doing the Spiritual Exercises in Everyday Life, a version of the Jesuit 30 day retreat, spread out over nine months. By January of 1991, all I was hearing in prayer was, "Get a life."

You can hear my eyes rolling. I can tell.

At the urging of my spiritual director, I went with it. "What does it mean, God?" "Get a life." The only other thing I knew was that I was a loving and lovable woman who didn't need to wait around for Mr. Perfect and his 2.5 weekend kids to show up on my doorstep.

I spent three months checking out children to adopt. Newborns, foreign countries, older kids. I went to workshops. I checked out books. I'd seen an article in the paper about a 14-year-old girl named Esther who wanted to be adopted, and my inner self said, "Fourteen? Heck, in four years she'll graduate from high school and go to college. I could do four years."

Esther had already been adopted, but I eventually got connected with the Casey Family Program which works with older kids who are harder to place in foster care. Casey's goal is long-term foster care with lots of support. By August, all the paperwork, workshops, and background checks done, Heidi Jo moved in.

She was 10. ("No diapers. No daycare!" was my mantra) And we looked uncannily alike. It was an amazing journey--all the way back to her infancy, we rocked and read bedtime stories for months. She had two sisters, one in foster care nearby (the girls couldn't live together--they would have killed each other) and one in a group home in Portland. We foster moms got to know a good deal about the girls' family life and spent much of our energies loving them well.

Right after Heidi turned 14, my grandfather died. Heidi had gotten to know him very well. He was the only Grandpa she knew. The loss was hard. Two weeks later, she blew out of the placement and went somewhere else. There was no working through the tough emotions. She was just gone. In four years.

When she was 19, I called the Casey people and said I'd like to be in touch with her again. A week later, she called them, wanting to get in touch with me. She had a new baby girl that spring of 1999. Three years later, she had a boy. And sometime in 2003, we lost touch.

The phone was disconnected. The apartment was empty. Nothing came up when I googled her--except the suspicion that at some point she had ID that says she was older than she actually was.

This week, I went looking for her again. Five minutes of looking on Facebook (no luck) and then MySpace--and there she was. She's 28 now, married for two years, with a third child, working in a business that suits her so much that it's funny. For all her struggles in school, she called yesterday to "brag on my son who got all Es in his kindergarten class!"

And so we are reconnected. It is a tenuous connection; it always has been. We have struggled through the years to define what it means to be mother and daughter, but like a few other things in life, there was an ontological change way back when and there's no going back. We may not look like the typical mother/daughter duo, but then, these days, who does?

That hole in my stomach? Still there, but I have these old lessons coming at me again. I can love and be loved.