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.