21 November 2011

Boxers or Briefs?

God: Jeremiah, you need some new underwear.

Jerry: Really? Boxers or briefs?

God: Check out the local Nordstrom's for the latest in loincloths. Get a nice set.

Jerry: You got it!

God: And Jeremiah?

Jerry: Yes, God?

God: When you get that new underwear, put it on.

Jerry:  Of course! (Like what else would I do with it? Use it as a slingshot?)

God:  I heard that. 

Jerry takes himself downtown Jerusalem to the local Nordstrom's and finds himself some fine underwear. He thinks God will like it.

Jerry: So what do you think, God? Found some that were just my color.

God: I see that. Put on that underwear.

Jerry does and then models for God.

God: Looking good! One more thing, Jerry.

Jerry: Yes, God?

God: You can wear it, but you can't wash it.

Jerry: What? For how long?

God: I'll let you know.

Jerry: But I got enough for a week's supply!

God: Did you hear me?

Jerry: (Big sigh) Yes, God.

Time goes by. Jeremiah did not record just how much time, but it was clearly a l-o-n-g time. Finally, God comes by again.

God: Jerry! I see you're wearing that new underwear.

Jerry: (twists awkwardly, straightens out the wedgie) Yep. Doesn't feel so new right now.

God: I want you to take that underwear and go bury it down by the river.

Jerry: Are you nuts? By the river? Don't you mean IN the river? As in WASH it?

God: You heard me. Go bury it by the river.

Jerry stomps off to the Jordan where he digs a hole, strips off the loincloth, and throws it in.

God: Cover it up, Jerry.

Jerry does what he's told.

Jerry: There. Satisfied?

God doesn't answer. Jerry goes back to Jerusalem.
More time goes by, even more time than before. Finally, God comes around again.

God: Jerry! Remember that underwear I told you to buy?

Jerry: As if I could forget.

God: Remember I told you not to wash it?

Jerry: I remember.

God: Where is it now?

Jerry: Buried down by the river, just like you told me.

God: Well, I want you to go down to the river and dig up that underwear.

Jerry:  Of course you do.

Jerry leaves Jerusalem, goes down to the river, digs a few holes looking for the underwear he buried there. Finally, he locates it and pulls it out of the hole.

Jerry: Ewwww! Yuck! Gross! Look at this! Holes, sand flies, creepy bugs! This underwear is rotten!

God: I know that.

Jerry: I suppose you want me to put it on now.

God: No. I just want you to look at it. It is a rotten mess, isn't it?

Jerry: Am I supposed to learn something here?

God: Take a good look, Jerry. Israel and Judah were created to be as close to me as a man's underwear is to his body, but they've gone corrupt. Who'd want this stinking rotten mess next to his private parts, I ask you?

Jerry: Wait a minute. Are you saying...

God: I am indeed! If you haven't learned anything by now, you should know, YOU are my underwear!

Jerry: But I thought I was supposed to be your sheep, your beloved, your shining star!

God: I tried all that. You seem to forget so quickly. Maybe this will be easier to remember. Here's what I want you to tell the people in Jerusalem: You are God's underwear!

Jerry: (mumbles)   You are God's underwear.

God: You're mumbling. I can't hear you. Louder please.

Jerry: (louder) You are God's underwear.

God: Not very convincing. MUCH louder please.

Jerry: (over-exaggerating and enunciating) YOU ARE GOD'S UNDERWEAR!

God: That's good, Jerry. I think you've got my point. You are my underwear!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
When people first get to jail or prison, they are issued a basic set of clothing: jumpsuit, t-shirts, socks, and underwear. None of it is new. It's well-washed, but it isn't new. Ever had to wear someone else's underwear? Not the first choice for most of us.

(with thanks to Bill Cosby for his rendition of a conversation between God and Noah)

13 October 2011

Signs, Signs, Everywhere a Sign

About a mile north of the jail, on 4th/5th and Pine Streets, there are signs everywhere. Occupy Seattle has been busy. There are all sorts of negotiations going on (the Mayor is accused of trivializing the basic outrage and turning it into "camping violations") but the mood continues to be fairly upbeat.

Across the street from the jail is the County Administration Building. It is often the backdrop for one of the TV news reporters covering a court case. (City Hall's spot is the next block.) I'm used to seeing those TV folks making their stand in the late afternoon, preparing for the evening news.

Yesterday, though, there was a young woman standing out on that sidewalk with a big bright green sheet of poster board. She tilted it up so it could be read by someone on the upper floors of the jail. On the poster board: CALL ME. When she flipped it over, it read: 
I'M SORRY. -----  I CAN SEE YOU. She stayed for a long time, holding up first one side, then the other. 

I wondered how many people in the jail saw her message, maybe thought it was meant for them, maybe took heart that someone was willing to re-establish contact.

We're looking for signs all the time. I'm still waiting for that billboard that says, "Dear Shannon, do ________________________. Love, God." Wouldn't that just be so much easier? 

Every now and then, I get reminded that I'm looking for outward signs and they just aren't all that visible. I get to hear stories and discover what God is writing in hearts every day. That's sign enough. For today.

05 October 2011

Seen on 4 North



I'm reminded of the time a new bishop came to the diocese. Before too many people had had a chance to meet him, the word was already out. "No whining." No matter who he met with, that was his theme.

When he came to our parish, I had a chance to greet him privately. I gave him this button. That he didn't laugh spoke volumes.


04 October 2011

In Honor of the Feast Day

It's the feast of St. Francis of Assisi. This painting is thought to be very close to what he actually looked like. It is at eye level in the Lower Basilica of St. Francis in his home town. In the midst of angels and heavenly thrones, you could almost mistake him for another tourist.  Once I thought I caught him rolling his eyes as if to say, "Can you believe all this stuff??"

Francis went off to war a couple of times in his young life, once against a neighboring city, Perugia. He was captured and spent time in prison. It wasn't an easy time.

I think of Francis often at the jail. I meet so many people who were pretty set in their lives: having a good time, certain they were doing the right thing, spoiled, the life of the party. And now they're in jail. The story of "Frenchie from Assisi" comes in handy.

And who knows what saints are being made within these walls today? I know I've met some.

A note: I went to Google thinking to look for a picture of the prison Francis was in. Into the search engine I put "St. Francis AND prison." Here's what came up as the first hit: when St. Francis went to prison

I understand Frank was a wonderful tease... 

30 September 2011

"You Look Familiar"

The woman was a little older than I. My brain went into its Search and Remember Mode. We were standing at the entry way to a church north of Seattle. I was there because Uncle Frank had died. I was looking for his sons before things got started. I was also looking for Betsy. Betsy used to be a juvenile detention minister and a volunteer at the adult prison in Monroe. Now she works at this parish and we were going to spend a few minutes catching up.

"You look familiar," the woman said again. I looked at her face. I'd worked only with men at the prison for eleven years, no matter how often people thought I worked at the women's prison. It's only in the last fifteen months that I've worked with women on a regular basis, and this woman did not look like anyone I knew from the county jail.

Another woman came up to us just before I started to say something. The two of them together made the connections in my brain work faster. There it was: we are cousins. We haven't seen each other in a few years. We remade the connections and talked.

I came away shaking my head. These days, when someone says, "You look familiar," I immediately think of the jail/prison context. Forget family. Forget other places I've worked. 

I need to get out more often, I told a friend. "Or go to Vegas and cut loose," she suggested. Ummmm. No. I have a feeling that even in Vegas someone will find me and say, "You look familiar." So much for my fantasy of going somewhere, acting outrageous, and still being anonymous. Should have done all my acting out years ago. Who knew?

16 August 2011

Considering the Gifts of the Spirit

He told us a story about being in the park, seeing a trio getting out of their car, putting purses in the trunk, then going for a walk. One was a grandmother, one was about three, and the other, he guessed, was probably The Mom. In the few minutes he saw them, they walked into his heart, even though he didn't know it yet.

Months later, on a sunny August day, he is in jail, sitting in a church service on 2 West. He's sober now, all the drugs finally out of his system. And he's crying. Not sobbing, but the tears just keep coming.

He's remembering that trio in the park. "For the first time," he says, "I don't just see them. I see my mother, my grandmother, my daughter. For the first time, I know that I would never inflict on my family what I did to those people in the park." He'd broken into the car, he confessed, had stolen their money and credit cards. Used it all to feed his drug habit.

"I have a gift for crime," he says. "Anything you want, I can walk down the street and get it. Half an hour, I'd be back, giving you an iPod, laptop, shoes, you name it. I can get anything. It's a gift." He twists the songbook in his hands and swipes at the tears on his face.

"I don't understand why I'm crying all the time. Day or night. I've never cried like this in my life. I feel bad about what I did to those people in the park, and all the other people I've stolen from and hurt." His voice breaks as he struggles for words. "Why does it hurt so much?"

Someone offers, "Maybe you're feeling your conscience again." We all consider that truth.

"I think maybe your heart got really hard, like a rock, over time. Your tears are softening your heart, breaking it open again. Your heart is healing. You are healing."

He only nods and cries more. Around the small circle, we consider this gift of tears and pray that God will be as merciful to the rest of us.

06 August 2011

Truth in the Margins (or the back cover)

Do you write in your bible? I don't. I don't highlight verses in different colored inks. I don't put exclamation marks in the margins or pencil in comments. Lots of other people do, but I never have. My hesitation comes from knowing that what is so real and pertinent today will be incomprehensible in two years or ten. I don't want to lock in one meaning and not have the opportunity to see differently the next time I encounter the text.

I want to lay myself open to the new possibilities.

Having said that, I'm always curious to go through the bibles that have gotten recycled back to my office. Some come back in pristine condition. Probably the requestor left the jail before the bible made it to him. Or maybe she had good intentions, but that fifth grade reading level wasn't enough to make the Book speak.

Some bibles come back with careful notations. Inside this one is a list of important passages: "Do not be afraid." "Love one another." "Of course I want to heal you."

Inside another is a list of memorable characters: Jacob the trickster, Rachel and Leah, Naomi and Ruth, Paul and Silas.

There are dates when the back-sliders slid back into the arms of the Prodigal God. On the title page of one, "With much love, from the Author of Life."

I opened a Good News Translation of the bible last week. This is version seen rarely, but every now and then it comes through. Do you remember its old title? Good News for Modern Man and do you remember the line drawings? You can see them here. Good News images

I got a note from an offender a month ago asking for this specific translation and I'd sent a response explaining the scarcity of copies. Now, here was that Good News Bible. The original requestor was gone, but there was a another request in the stack on my desk. I slipped that note inside the bible and then set about checking the book itself. Sometimes people leave important numbers in their bible: phone numbers, booking numbers, Social Security numbers. Sometimes it's a name or a birthdate. I take out all the identifying information and clean it up before I send it upstairs.

This Good News Bible is clean, just a little banged up. No markings on the pages, only one corner and about twenty pages curled. I check the inside of the front cover. Nothing. I look at the inside of the back cover.

"I am homicidal," the note says. A full name and a birthdate follow. There are dates of admission to Western State Hospital "for being homicidal." A court date, a day in April.

It's all in pencil and as I carefully erase the name, the dates, the notes, I think about the man who had this bible last spring. I wonder what has happened to him in the last three months. Is he still in jail? Did he get sent to prison? Has he gone to the mental hospital for the help he needs?

I write a note to the man who will receive this bible. "Your request and this bible arrived on my desk together today. You can see it has been used by at least one person before you. When you read God's Word, pray for the person who read this bible before you and for the one who will read it after you. May you find strength and hope here."

I went on to the other requests.

Several hours later, on the bus headed home, I realized that the note-maker had said, "I am homicidal." Homicidal. Not suicidal. Wanting to harm others, not himself. I prayed for the intended victims and for the man who had written the words.

03 August 2011

The View from the Eighth Floor

Last night I was up on the eighth floor assisting with a Word and Communion Service led by one of the Catholic volunteers. Rudy's partner is recovering from knee replacement surgery and is out of commission for a few weeks.

The eight floor, south wing, houses Medium Security level men in eight dorms, twenty beds to the dorm. Because the multi-purpose room we meet in isn't huge, only three men from each dorm were allowed to come to the service for a total of 24. Twenty men actually came and they were a fairly lively group. I'm up on that floor often during the day to meet with someone who requested a chaplain, so many of the men have seen me at one time or another. There are always a few who haven't and we go through the "Gee you look familiar" and "Did you go to prison any time since 1999?" and the "Oh that's where I know you from!"

When I'm on the floor for visits, I can't see outside, but there are windows in the multi-purpose room and on a beautiful summer night, I looked out the window. It faces east, so the first thing I could see was the freeway that runs right alongside the jail. Just across the freeway, at the edges of some trees, I saw a line of tents. It could have been an outdoor sale for REI, but it wasn't. The tents are occupied by some of the homeless in the city.

I would never see those tents when I'm on the bus or driving the car into work. They sit right above my exit and the concrete wall is too high to see over at that point. Some of the men in the service said they'd camped out in that spot before, when they were on the streets. One of them knew two places to get a hot meal within three blocks of the campsite. There was a brief discussion about the differences between those in the tents and those in the jail. The men agreed there were good things about both places.

Some of the campers were sitting outside their tents, on the grass, looking at a grand summer sun setting over the water and the Olympic mountains. They could see the jail and I'm guessing some of their conversations were along the line of "I've been inside that building. Glad I'm out here. No, I didn't have dinner tonight, but at least I'm in my own tent."

We read next Sunday's readings, Elijah looking for the sign of God's presence, Jesus showing up on the water in the middle of the night. "It's a ghost!" were the words I carried with me. Our prayers were wide enough to include the homeless campers, the drug habit that got interrupted, the family members struggling with broken promises and disappointments.

Who do I see when I look up? And who is looking at me, pondering the possibilities?

06 July 2011

Playing the Trump Card

I keep this in my back pocket at the jail. Not a real one, but it's there nonetheless. It is a reminder that the work I do is best done in the presence of love. If I can be aware that we all come from Great Love and are created for Great Love, no matter the paths we have wandered, then I can work in love, without fear.

I'm always surprised when someone asks if I'm afraid to be working in a jail. Probably I should offer more tours to let them see what the setting really is. It's not like "Lockup" that you see on TV. Any more than "Hoarders" shows the typical cluttered house. (You'll catch me yelling at "Law and Order" when the detectives make a trip upstate to the prison at Attica and interview an inmate in the Yard, in front of hundreds of other inmates.)

Jail happens in a secure building. That means that visitors come through the front door, identify who they want to visit, listen to the speech by one of the officers about what they cannot bring in, including cell phones, and invariably find that they have some sort of contraband in their purses or pockets because they weren't really listening to what the officer said. Or they didn't read the list right out there in the lobby. Or they thought that it didn't particularly apply to them. So please turn off your cell phone and drop it in the locker over there to your right. Once that's done, it's through the scanner at least twice because your shoes do have metal in them.

About noon, it's fun to go stand in the lobby and listen to the cell phone symphony. Most people are so rattled at coming into jail they don't listen to the instructions. Some leave their phones on to vibrate. Get a few of those and you could give yourself a good massage just by leaning up against the lockers. The music runs the gamut. The "Pink Panther" theme is my favorite so far.

Welcome in. Take the big stairway to the next floor.

Fill out the paperwork. Find out if the person you want to visit has visiting hours right now. Often people get moved to another wing or another floor and that messes up the plans to visit because:

the "visit room" is really a set of 6-8 phone booth-sized cubicles, meant to serve as many as 360 people on a floor. Visits are rotated among the three wings.

Visitors go through a steel door, into an elevator to their destination, and exit right into the visit area on the floor with the person they want to visit. There is no interaction with any other offenders while they are visiting.

For the staff, of course, it's different. Teachers, health care workers, chaplains, officers, we are all over the place on all the floors. When the nurse comes through to distribute medications, the meds cart is put outside the door of the dorm and an officer opens a small panel. The nurse checks the name of the offender by looking at the band on the wrist that has his/her full name and photo. The offenders puts out a hand for the meds, takes them, and steps back from the door. The panel is below waist level so the nurse cannot be grabbed easily.

Teachers use the multi-purpose room on each floor to conduct their classes. Everyone is on a list, escorted to the room. The room has a big window as well as windows in the door so the activity can be observed at all times, as well as a camera.

When I go to see an offender, I let an officer know the person's name and which dorm she's in. The officer calls her out, asks if she wants to see the chaplain, and then opens the main door so she can come out to the general area. Right outside the wing, there's usually a table with a couple of chairs that we can use. The traffic is unavoidable, so I make a point of paying attention to the person in front of me, ignoring the side conversations and clanging doors. Most people are respectful about not interrupting us.

Some offenders are escorted in handcuffs when they are going from one floor to another. That depends on their security level. If they are maximum security, often it's both handcuffs and ankle restraints. Protocol on the elevator if inmates get on? They stand on the side with their escorting officer, I stand on the other. We can talk, and I often do, because it is a chance to make a connection. The elevator is the place where I can count on someone looking at me funny, trying not to be rude, until I say, "You're wondering where you know me from, right?" And it's true. I ask if they've gone to prison in the last few years and their eyes light up with the connection. (This only works with the men because that's all there were at the prison.)

Long story short, given the precautions, jail is as safe, if not safer, than a host of other places.

Yesterday I was in the post office in Tacoma, taking care of errands. Several of us had arrived all at the same time and we chit-chatted while the clerks did their work. One man looked at me and said, "You sure look familiar. Where do I know you from?" 

"Church maybe?" I told him the name of the parish where I'd worked in the 90s that is still my home parish. He got all excited, knew all about it, but when he tried to remember the name of the pastor, he drew a blank. And the man he described didn't fit any of the staff that I've known for 20 years.

Finally, I played my trump card. "Have you been through Shelton in the last ten years?"

And there was the connection. He'd last been through in 2005. Now he's out and doing well. I never talked to him individually when he came through. I was just someone on the periphery then. But yesterday we made a connection: I knew where he'd been and could see where he'd come to. That was grace in abundance.

Photo courtesy of http://www.magicians.co.uk/news/valentines-magic/  For some extra fun, click on the link and watch the video.

15 June 2011

It Wasn't My Pencil, I Swear!

Before I leave my office to visit offenders on the upper floors of the jail, I check the stack of things that I'm taking with me.

Do I have my keys? The all-important keys. After years of having only pants that did not have pockets and therefore making key retention iffy, I finally found pants with pockets. My work keys are on a separate ring from the house and car keys. There's a big green clip and a plastic chit with my last name on it. The chit is a holdover from my life at the prison. I don't need chits anymore, but every now and then, it's fun to throw the word into the conversation.

Do I have the bibles, holy cards, rosary instructions, greeting cards, Catholic information that needs to go to the mail boxes? I make a trip to the mailboxes on the fifth floor at least once a day, more often twice. I can't hand anything directly to an offender if I'm visiting face to face. People have carried messages from one offender to another in the past. Not a good idea.

Do I have my green visiting slips? Are the locations current? These are handy forms on which I write a person's name and floor/wing/dorm location. There's a notebook out front with a current printout of the 1200 people currently in the jail. It's updated every day. When someone sends a request for a visit, I fill out a green slip and put down the location that was on the request. But before I go upstairs, usually the next day, I check the location in The Book. Often that person has been moved. Saves time and aggravation if I get to the right spot and the individual is in place.

I have been known to go to the right floor, wrong wing, looking for a woman, only to discover that I was on the right floor, but the men's wing is not East but South. That's my fault. The Book, however, is only as good as yesterday. Whoever I'm looking for could have been moved at seven this morning, so I could have been in the right place, but it's ten now and Ms. Jones has a) been moved, b) gone to court, c) parked herself in the visiting cubicle to see her mom, or d) gone to medical, or the caseworker, or any number of other things, or just does not want to get out of bed.

Do I have something to write with? No pens allowed. Ballpoint pens are contraband. Ink can be used for tattoos. That springy wire inside clickable pens? Makes an effective part for a weapon. My name-embossed pencil won't do. It would be great because I'd get it back; people would know who it had been swiped from. But a full-length pencil is also not allowed. Too easy to become a weapon. So I use golf pencils. And like pens that tend to collect at the bottom of my purse on the outside, golf pencils seem to multiply in my pockets. When I get home in the evening and empty my pockets, I throw all the pencils into a plastic baggie that I stow in my book bag and haul back to the jail the next day.

I was doing just that this evening when I heard a story on the news. There's a sad trial going on just two blocks away and it had to be suspended this afternoon. Seems the defendant swallowed a small pencil during the lunch break and had to be taken to the hospital. You can read the story here. But it wasn't my pencil. Really. I can account for every one.

12 June 2011

The Difference Between May and June

This year in the Northwest JanuaryFebruaryMarch dragged on through AprilMay and into June. This last week, however, is a different story. Usually there is some stately progression of flowers as spring arrives: crocus, daffodils, tulips, cherry trees, rhododendrons, iris. There are bits of green fuzz on the trees and then a week or so later, real leaves and two weeks after that, you can tell the difference between the new leaves and the old.

But spring was late in coming this year. The rain kept coming. The wind blew. It was ugly. Nasty. Depressing. Finally, we had a day over 60 degrees, the first one since last fall. At last! The t-shirts came out, and the shorts, never mind that the temperatures immediately went back to the low 50s. But in the last ten days, the gardens are lush with flowers, the bare tree branches now arch and meet across the streets with a riot of leaves gladhanding. It is light until nine in the evening and then some. Weekends are observed by the weed-whacking of lawns because even the best mowers can't handle the grass when it's over a foot tall.

And in the jail, how do you know the difference between May and June? Inside the concrete towers with only tiny windows and no fresh air, how do you tell?

In the chaplains' office, we can tell the difference by the requests that we get. In May we are flooded with requests for Mother's Day cards: for my mom, my girlfriend, my baby's mom, my other baby's mom... As quickly as the supplies come in, they go out. 

In June, there are only a handful of requests for Father's Day cards. Someone somewhere has already written about the general lack of fathers in the lives of those incarcerated. I am thankful for the heartfelt desire for the men here who want to do it differently, to be a different kind of father than what they had. They imagine more for themselves and for their children, by the grace of God.

17 May 2011

Just a Whiff

I have been many things in my lifetime: switchboard operator, telemarketer for USA Today, high school religion teacher, parish worker, prison chaplain, to say nothing of unmentionable or forgettable short-life things, including a camp counselor who put the kids to sleep at night with interminable stories about Abby and her sister Gertrude. 

For a brief time, when I was in college, I was a cashier at a Catholic goods and supply store in downtown Seattle. I loved the job because I got to see all the great new books when they first arrived and because the 10-cent saints medals were art, of a sort. My roommate and good friend, Laura, says, even after all these years, that she knew which days I worked at the store because I came home smelling like incense.

Like so many things in my life, there are connections between the past and the present. Being a telemarketer makes me a dangerous call for anyone who wants a donation from me. Being a switchboard operator has made me a fool for making words out of someone's number. 

Today I was up on the fifth floor at the jail, arms loaded with half a dozen bibles and other things to be dropped off in the mailboxes for the offenders. I came out of the elevator, pushed the button that would get me past the next door, and stepped into the room between two doors. I pushed the next button and then caught a whiff of something familiar. A crowd of officers heading for muster charged through the door and I went on to the mailboxes.

Arms empty, I retraced my route. Pushed the button, spotted another group of officers headed onto the floor. We all made it to that inbetween room where I caught something familiar again as I went on through to the elevator. It was the smell of incense. Truly. Or maybe something like incense (don't come along behind me and tell me it is some green-sounding cleaning fluid. Please.).

I've smelled it before, of course. Today it cranked my mood up at least 40 degrees. The jail is not a place where I expect to smell beeswax or incense. But every now and then, I get surprised.

UPDATE: I've been informed by a reliable source that synthetic THC, called "Spice," smells like incense. Hmmm. So now I'm wondering whose been smoking before coming to work! (Thanks, Erin!)

30 April 2011

The Tomb Is Empty. Now What?

The women from 9East were a glum bunch on Thursday. One of the six had been at the Easter service the week before; the other five were new. Gina is four and a half months pregnant with twins. "The kids are sitting on my ribcage," she said, her face twisted into a grimace. Teresa pondered her fingernails. She's getting out this weekend and one of her first stops will be the nail salon to replace the two fingernails that have gone missing.

We sang, "He's got the whole world in his hands" with not much enthusiasm. The final verse, "He's got the King County Jail in his hands," got a guffaw. I asked, "Did that last verse surprise you?" "Hell ya. Why would God spend any time here?"

We finally resorted to "Amazing Grace" because almost everyone knew that one. By the fifth verse, "When we've been there 10 thousand years," the voices had trailed off. 

Time for the readings. No one wanted to volunteer. "I only have one contact in." "I don't know how to read." "Don't ask me." Somehow we managed to make it through that incident in John's gospel where Jesus shows up in a locked room. The women didn't look impressed.

I had a strong feeling that we were all staring at this:

Just an empty tomb. Now what?

So we talked about that. What's it like to be staring into darkness? What if this isn't good news? Is it okay to just sit here for a while? It is. Sitting with the grief and bewilderment and the anger and resentment is a part of the deal. Resurrection isn't always pretty. And maybe there are fifty days of the season so we have time to catch up with the mystery of it all.

At the end of the service, the women were still quiet. They thanked us for coming, but they weren't all cheered up. I'm glad they weren't. This was a more authentic reflection of their hearts at the moment. Better authenticity than plastered on cheer any day.

Here's something else to ponder: What's wrong with this picture? at least according to John's gospel?

Just wondering!

20 April 2011

I'm not sure I feel any safer

This just in from The Seattle Times. Much of the work in corrections is about managing people. Over time, management has learned what kids in kindergarten know: "Use your words." Effective speech can make all the difference in a volatile situation.

On the other hand, there are people in jail or prison who never got the T-shirt that says, "Plays nicely with others." It doesn't pay to get complacent. There are many tools to use; I'm just not sure the latest one is going to make anyone safer.

At the same time, the comments after the article make me wonder if we're locking up the right people...

18 April 2011

Easter and Easter and Easter again

When I worked on liturgy committees or was on staff in parishes, by the time Easter finally rolled around, I'd have the bends. We'd typically begin preparations for the big seasons and feast days several months ahead. It wasn't unusual to have a staff Epiphany party end with everyone pulling out calendars and penciling in the date for the meeting to prepare the Lenten reconciliation service. To help catechists prepare for Ash Wednesday with their students, resources had to be ordered at least three months in advance and meetings for additional background and questions had to be scheduled.

Working in prison for 11 years, that sense of the bends was still there, but to a lesser degree. As long as I was two weeks ahead of events, things were okay. The liturgical calendar sometimes bumped up against the secular one (who takes down a Christmas tree at 5pm on December 25th?) but Fr. Joe would be there for Christmas Mass the Sunday after Christmas and all was right with the world.

This year, jail lives a different story. There have been no frantic requests for cards, unlike Christmas and Valentine's Day. No one has confessed feeling a failure for not being home for Easter. There hasn't been a rush to see Fr. Lyle for confession. And this week we'll celebrate Easter.

One group will celebrate Palm Sunday, though, on Wednesday. Another group, on another floor, will celebrate Easter on Holy Thursday. The Good Friday service had to give way to a GED class on the 8th floor on Friday. Saturday's afternoon gathering will celebrate Easter. Next Tuesday and Wednesday, two more groups will celebrate Easter because they use the previous Sunday's readings for their service. And somewhere in there, on Saturday night, I'll be at the Vigil in  my home parish.

What I appreciate in all this, what makes me laugh and enjoy the work I do so much: you just never know when the resurrection is going to bump into your life and make a mess of things. Just pay attention, be open, it doesn't always happen according to the calendar.

09 April 2011

How Dead Is Dead?

At a Word and Communion service at the jail this week, we prayed with the readings for Sunday: Ezekiel's adamant pronouncement that God would raise the People from their graves and put them in God's own land and the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead.

The Ezekiel reading, a shortened version of what we'll hear at the Easter Vigil, left out the vision of a valley littered with dry bones. It demanded context, so I talked about the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, how the city had seen the wealthy and the skilled taken into exile and the poor and crippled left behind to wander and fend for themselves. The city was dead, for all that it might have mattered.

And then there was Lazarus, a good friend who was sick, no, dying, no--he's dead. How dead is he? At least four days in the tomb. No embalming fluid. He's decaying. He stinks. We get the good religious answer from the dead man's sister: "I know he will be raised on the last day." Not much of a comfort (those religious answers never are much comfort in the crisis) but Jesus doesn't stop there. Loud crying sobs from Jesus and finally a shout, "Lazarus! Come out!"

We had a long talk about whether or not Lazarus was really dead, what did John intend by putting this story in this place in the gospel. And then someone said, "I guess we're like those dry bones, all of us here at jail." The mood shifted, became more somber. What has died within us? What has died around us? How are we so dead that there are only bones left?

It's only now, three days later, that I find myself thinking of the movie, "The Killing Fields" that chronicled the deaths in Cambodia. And of the devastation in New Orleans with so many of the poor were left abandoned. Of the display cases full of wire-rimmed glasses at Auschwitz. Of Haitians still living in tents more than a year after a massive earthquake. Of the remains of Sendai tumbling in the Pacific waters. Of Christchurch bulldozing its way to a new existence.

The list of devastation runs long, full of the names of towns flattened by war and disease and human destruction. When I look at all of that, can I believe the words of a prophet like Ezekiel? Do I believe the cry that comes from the depths of the heart of God, the anguished sob that yearns to give life?

28 March 2011

Helloooooo? Anybody home?

Well, I'm not, at least at the moment. Instead, I'm at the ocean in Oregon. For years, I've taken Easter week off and gone to the beach with several friends. We pack along our knitting, crocheting, quilting and books and settle in for a week of lazing about, good food, and Mariners' baseball. In the past few years, the group has dwindled due to health and retirement.

And this year, Easter week is way too darn late! I needed to get out of Dodge. So I packed a suitcase, threw my computer into its satchel, made sure the Kindle was loaded, and drove south to the beach where my sister is currently living. At a staff meeting I once complained, "The ocean never shuts up!" For an extravert, whose body is tuned to picking up all the sights and sounds in the area, that's a real problem. However, either I'm extra tired and the noise doesn't really matter, or I've gotten older (and maybe don't hear quite so well!) but I am enjoying the sight and sound of the waves.

Want a peek at where I am? Go right here.

10 March 2011

Praying on the 11th Floor

photo from nationalgeographic.com

If you had been following me around this morning, you would have seen this sight up on the 11th floor. At the jail, the higher the floor, the greater the security. These men are housed in one-person cells. They can talk to each other--if they yell--but they can't see each other. One at a time, a man is released from his cell for "yard" time. That means he gets to roam the concrete floor in front of the other nine cells in his area. 

If he wants to see outside, he can stand on a steel bench and take a look at the view of downtown or the freeway or the city building across the street. He can use the phone; no guarantees that anyone's taking his calls. He can stretch and not touch both walls with his palms. Men housed up here often have mental health issues or medication issues or just general cussed-off-at-society issues. It gets noisy.

I went up to the eleventh floor this morning, three different requests in my hands. Turned out one man had been moved down to the tenth floor, so I began with the two who were still on eleven.

William told me his mother died in Oakland CA on March 1st. She'd had surgery for a hole in her heart four years ago and he kept hoping he'd get down to California to see her. Elsie's name went into the book of Those Who Have Died. William and I prayed for her and for him, both of us fighting off tears.

And because nothing is ever private on the 11th floor, the two guys who'd been yelling at each other actually shut up for a few minutes. As soon as I said, "Amen," one of them was calling, "Chaplain! Over here!" I said goodbye to William and went down the row. I took note of who needed a bible, who really wanted some writing paper, and oh yes, yes, we could pray.

Usually I hold a man's hand when we pray together, something very Catholic about that, sacramental. But on the 11th floor, we can't hold hands. Instead, like Shakespeare's young lovers, we are palm to palm on the glass.

Gracious God,
see this beloved son of yours
whose heart aches
with the loss of his mother.
Draw her home to you
and surround her with your angels and saints.
Give her the healing and peace that she prayed for
during her lifetime
and the fullness of love in your presence.
Be with this son of hers
who broke her heart
and made her laugh
and taught her to forgive
again and again.
Fill him with your Spirit of reconciliation
and gratitude.
Fill him with the memories and stories
that will carry him through.
Listen, even as he tries to swallow his tears,
and comfort him.
We ask this in the name of Jesus.

28 February 2011

Wednesday, 28 February 2001

10:58am. We've been holding Open Chapel for almost two hours. Two more minutes and we'll clear the place and everyone will head for lunch. It has been a busy morning, a never-ending line outside my office with requests for prayer, for a rosary, for an explanation about something Catholics do or believe. A regular kind of day at the prison.


There is a rumble and then a groan. The noise level in the chapel goes up and then it is suddenly quiet. The bookcase behind me is threatening to dump catechisms and commentaries on my head. The building is swaying, on the diagonal. Is that possible?

I grew up in Central California. I know what this is. "Earthquake!" I yell. "Everyone out!" The chapel/education building is concrete and rebar but I'd rather be outside than inside with this kind of motion.

The move to the sidewalk is quick. A 20-something from Minnesota pulls on my arm. His eyes are wide. "Is it like this around here all the time?" Poor guy. Welcome to the Northwest where earthquakes rumble and volcanoes blow. We live on the wild side here.

It was Ash Wednesday that day, but we never did distribute ashes. Everything shut down for the rest of the day. A co-worker made it in after barely missing the collapse of part of the highway. Most everyone had to find a different way home later that afternoon.

September brought another day of ashes that year.

I think of the faces that surrounded me that day when the earthquake hit. Many of them are back in their communities now because they finished serving their sentences. Some of them are back in again. A few are dead. And yet, still God is with us, riding the crest of the earthquake that rattles buildings and shakes hearts. God is with us.

24 February 2011

Do You Need Permission?

Rodney Clapp has a great article at Christian Century about why we need people to pray for us. This is what I bring into the jail. When people tell me they are having a hard time praying, I tell them about the people outside who are praying for them. "Let their prayer carry you for a while."
If they are bored with their own prayers, their own concerns, I give them a name of someone outside and say, "Here's someone who needs your prayer." It is a wonderful exchange, a purposeful act. Go read what Rodney Clapp has to say about it.


12 February 2011

And Still the Questions Come

from the Seattle Times This is a story from the detectives who interviewed the man accused of killing Corrections Officer Jayme Biendl.

Take a few moments and see if you can list all the people in need of prayer around this incident.

Then multiply that by 10.

And again.

06 February 2011

Keeping Silence

The thirteen prisons in the state observed a moment of silence on Sunday at 1:35pm to honor Officer Jayme Biendl. It was her birthday.

Her death a week ago has affected corrections officers as well as police officers and their families, offenders and their families, Department of Corrections decision-makers and staff. There's a huge running debate on news blogs about the dangers of women working in prisons--mostly written by people who have no idea what it is like to work in prison. Much of the knee-jerk reaction amounts to, "Make life miserable for anyone behind bars. They deserve it."

Every now and then someone will remind those commenting that 96% of those in prison will someday be returning to the community. What kind of mood do you want them to be in when they get out?

There are serious questions to be addressed: Why didn't anyone look for the chapel officer when they located the missing offender in the chapel? Why did it take an hour before anyone went looking for her? What will be done to begin the healing?

In the town where I live, a "Moment of Blessing" happens any place there has been a murder. It is a way of reclaiming the space, a way to say, "There was more to this person than how she died." In that spirit, I hope there is some special prayer in the chapel at Monroe, that people will gather to reclaim the goodness that can happen in prison. Jayme Biendl was part of that goodness.


01 February 2011

Please pray for Jayme Biendl

Jayme Biendl was a corrections officer at the Monroe Correctional Center north of Seattle. She was strangled to death last Saturday night during her shift at the chapel.

One of the news stories is here 

An offender who was not in his cell for the evening count was found in the chapel at 9:15pm. He told the officers that he'd been planning to escape, but had decided against it. They handcuffed him and took him to a segregation cell.

An hour later, Biendl's keys and radio still hadn't been turned in. Officers returned to the chapel area and found her dead.

It's a chilling story and it has repercussions at all the prisons and jails around the state. Please pray for Jayme, for her friends and family, and for her co-workers who continue to do a job that is dangerous every day.

31 January 2011

Losing My Religion--in Jail

Gene's in his thirties. He's been to prison once and he's facing a second trip, probably for a longer time. It was five years last time. It will be at least seven, maybe fifteen this time. He has a wife, two kids, a job he lost after he stole from the company, and a batch of remorse he's been stirring up for the last few months. He said he'd lost God along the way.

I was curious and so I asked, "What did you do to lose God?"

He hunched his shoulders for a long minute. "I quit going to church. I stopped reading the bible. I started drinking and then I started using again."

"Okay," I nodded, "but exactly how did you lose God?"

More story followed: thinking he could get along without God, getting angry at God, disappointed, upset, trying to do things on his own, never asking for help. In short, he wasn't doing the religious, pious things he was expected to do so that God would never leave him.

He'd never heard of The Hound of Heaven by Francis Thompson, but I explained briefly the imagery of the poem, a dog chasing a rabbit. It can be a useful example, except it never convinced me. I told Gene, "When it comes to thinking of God as a dog chasing after me, I think of the dog on the Taco Bell commercials, the chihuahua." Gene gave me a look. "I know," I said, "the yappy little dog that just won't shut up." He swallowed a smirk.

"Sounds to me like you've been thinking about God a lot, that you're kind of disturbed about the whole status of your relationship with God." Gene agreed. "So what makes you think that you've left God in the dust? Don't you hear that yapping at your heels?"

Gene cracked up. I suggested he needed to let God out of the box he'd taped up and marked "Religion." Then maybe spend the next few days discovering how God was already present. 

When I saw Gene a week later, I asked how he was doing. "Well, God's not the Taco Bell chihuahua for me," he laughed. "More like a red setter." 

Good. No need for that Amber Alert for God.

15 January 2011

Into the Rhythm at Jail

There's a certain rhythm to the comings and goings at jail. From my office near the main entrance, I can almost always tell when a batch of offenders are being released and headed out, or when the lawyers have arrived for afternoon court sessions, or when some officer has cycled in for a spot of relief duty. The sound level rises and falls, the chatter shifts, the scanner beeps more insistently.

I try to be upstairs visiting with people during most of the morning. I go with a stack of visit requests in my hand, organizing them into common floors or in order of urgency. Sometimes the name on top is the one who will be most challenging. More than once, that name gets put on the bottom of the pile.

There are people I will see once, giving them a name and a face. Others I see more often, every week if there's time, every two weeks if things are busy. There's a woman to see in the hospital who has a great view of the street below but spends most of her time with the TV on. Winter days in Seattle can be grey and wet, not particularly inspiring or restful to view.

When I head upstairs, I give myself a two-hour block to see people. That gives me time to check in, locate an offender who has been moved, stand aside while medicines are delivered, wait for the call-out for court, make wisecracks with the kitchen folks delivering sack lunches. Checking in with staff, being flexible with whatever is going on at the moment, all this makes for good relations. In the long run, it means that staff gets to know that I know what they're dealing with--and that goes a very long way.

As it gets close to 2pm, I start winding things up. The upstairs floors shut down about 2, offenders returning to their dorms or individual cells, officers getting ready for shift change. Those on duty have been there since 6:30am, dealing with all the morning craziness. A new shift begins at 2:30 and information will have to be passed from one group to the next. Clearing extraneous people off the floor makes it easier to concentrate on the essentials. There are no classes and no religious services going on between 2 and 3pm.

The other day, one of my interviews went a little long and it was after 2:15 when I finally joined a small group at the elevator to go back to my office. The Elevator God told us it was Shift Change and the elevators were locked. The group of us nodded our heads. We understood this. We exchanged names and job titles because we don't often see each other in this configuration.

A few minutes later, the bell dinged, and the elevator door slid open. We civilians stood to one side as the next shift of officers came out of the elevator. And we laughed.

It was like watching a clown car. More and more officers poured out of the elevator. There must have been more than twenty. Someone asked if the back doors of the elevator were open and were they funneling people through there? They weren't. The officers were all in good humor and we wished them well.

They had half an hour before all the activity picked up again: med lines, dinner to be distributed, afternoon visits, people returning from court.

I went back to my office to log in my visits and answer the mail.

(photo courtesy of mikewehde.wordpress.com)

06 January 2011

Getting Spirit-Nudged

I forgot to bring the Kleenex. I apologized.

He cranked up half a smile and said, "You know me. Tears come with the territory."

He pleaded guilty in the courtroom this morning. Tomorrow the federal marshals will be here to take him to Montana. He's looking at very serious time, maybe more than twenty years.

He was my first stop this morning. I had a handful of requests, people wanting to see a chaplain. Some I'd seen before. Robert and I had talked a couple of times. He's the requisite tough guy, doesn't need anything, can handle whatever gets thrown at him, but spend five minutes with him and he becomes a vulnerable man who can't quite believe that someone wants to get to know him.

He hadn't asked to see me again. His name had caught my eye when I was catching up on paperwork, printing out the names of people I'd seen in December. There was a gentle nudge. So he was first on my list today. I'm glad I went. One more day and he would be gone. And he'd already been to court this morning, so there wasn't the Great Unknown waiting for him.

We sat in silence for a while, his eyes filling and emptying with tears.

"If you need someone to write to," I said, "here's my name and address." I wrote it out for him. He nodded and folded the card into his pocket.

Keep Robert in your prayers. He faces such a long road ahead.