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.