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.