31 December 2012

"Are you coming back?"

I went back to prison last week. I hadn't been there for more than two years. Much has changed.

Some of the faces were the same. One of the buildings had a new coat of paint. One of the living units is no longer home to men in grey jumpsuits. Instead, the residents wear the more permanent khaki outfits. R-7 has become Evergreen once more.

There's a stricter movement schedule now, and no moving from one activity to another. Instead, the route is always back to the living unit before proceeding on to a new destination.

The staff smoking gazebo that used to sit between the infirmary and administration building has been moved. It sits in front of the education, providing a viewing station for officers who can see two separate walkways and the yard, all out of the weather. No smoking allowed. Or chewing, for that matter.

Some of the staff are gone: some retired, some died, a few were fired.

Many of the changes happened since an officer was murdered at another prison almost two years ago.

I went just to touch base. I teased the men about slumming on my Christmas vacation. More than a few asked, "Are you coming back?"

They told me stories: about a father who died, a son who was murdered, about children who are supposed to have contact but someone else has decided that contact with a parent in prison is just too embarrassing for anyone's good. 

"I just wrote you a letter!" "Do you like it at the jail?" "Do you miss us?"

There's much to miss about the prison, mostly the people, some of the stories. I left grateful for the reminder of why I love doing this work. I wouldn't trade it for anything. Prison has made a home in my heart.

14 December 2012

Worth Repeating

Here's a post from 2007. As we pray for those who were killed in Connecticut today, let us also pray for creativity and peace in our own hearts.

12 December 2012

Signs of Grace Within

artwork by Br. Mickey McGrath, OSFS

While others are counting down to 12-21-12, at the jail we'll be talking about Our Lady of Guadalupe today. Her image is found in unexpected places. I met a man at prison who had the full-blown image tattooed on his back. There have been others, smaller versions over the heart or on an arm. What is consistent is the unflagging affection from Latinos and Anglos alike.

28 November 2012

Somedays I just have to wonder...

In my email one day was this subject line, "I saw online that you were in jail!" Inside the email said, "Was it true?" and provided a link. 

A link to what? I don't know. Maybe the jail roster? More likely a site I didn't want to see at all. I didn't click on it. But I thought about that question. Was I in jail? Were the reports true?

If I'm doing my job, it's true. No getting around that!

But honestly, is that the worst thing you could scare me with? (It does beat the ads for enlarging body parts I don't have or entreaties from Nigeria that could make me rich.)

18 November 2012

Traditions of the Season

This is the time of year my mother would get out the wooden box that held index cards. Every card held a name, address, and sometimes a phone number. Each card represented a relative, a family, a friend. Some of the relationships went back a couple of generations (some of my grandmother's card-playing friends, for instance). Some cards covered a history of moves and changes. If we'd taken the time to put all the cards on the table, we could have built an amazing picture of the relationships between layers of family with accents of places lived. I don't remember ever doing that. The task was to go through all the cards and double-check them against last year's Christmas cards.

Who had a new baby? Who moved? Who was grown up and on their own? Had anyone died? In the mid-sixties, we didn't have to mark the divorces. That would come later, in the seventies. Going through the cards was a serious accounting of the status of The List.

I don't know what happened to that wooden box. I grew up, moved away from home, filled up an address book, moved around often enough to confuse someone on my list almost every year. These days, I check FaceBook to keep up with family and friends, but I do like sending out cards. So tonight I was digging through a box, trying to find my address book once again.

And then I got a phone call. "Could you use some nice Christmas cards? Most of them are Catholic or religious." I could. The caller was a Carmelite nun whose monastery gets batches of cards from various charities, but since the monastery sends out their own cards, these needed another home. The Christmas cards are coming to jail.

Over the next few weeks, we'll get dozens of requests for Christmas cards, and after we've weeded out the ones that say, "I love you" (can't hand those out in jail. Go figure.) we'll send all sorts of silent nights, yon virgins, and Santa kneeling before a babe in the manger. Each of the offenders will only send out a few cards. Not too many addresses committed to memory, you know. All the important information is stored on the cell phone which is sitting in the Property Room if it hasn't been lost altogether. There may not be enough money on the books to send out as many cards as someone might wish.

But lists will be made. Mental index cards will be shuffled. Connections will be remembered. All of us will begin the slow journey to Christmas.

Some of the cards won't go out at all. They'll be inspiration for penciled artwork or for stories about favorite meals or unexpected gifts. They will be a catalyst for conversations that start with, "What if?"

I'll go to the monastery after Thanksgiving to pick up the cards, thankful again for cloistered sisters who pray for us and share what they have. They're on my list.

ps. Joseph, if you're reading this, I'm only 17 minutes late.

11 November 2012

Look who shows up in prison

Pope John XXIII at Regina Coeli Prison, Dec. 26, 1958

"Because you could not come to me, I came to you."

That's what much of ministry is about, isn't it? Not waiting around for others to come, but setting out on the journey and discovering Christ along the way.

31 October 2012

Where is God when disaster happens?

God's heart is the first to break.

I say this often at the jail. Tales of disappointment, woe, grief, rage. All of these usually bring the question, "Where is God in all this?" In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy that has devastated Haiti and Cuba and the eastern third of the US, and now trails on into Canada, there are no answers but this: God's heart is the first to break.

Many years ago, there was a short-lived TV show. I've long since forgotten the name, but in one of the first episodes, there was a conversation between a man and a priest. The man was cynical, bitter, made a flippant comment about God.

The priest, young, earnest, and female, asked him about his attitude. Why was he like this?

He didn't answer at first, but finally came the story. His wife, a journalist in the Middle East, had been killed by a car bomb. He death devastated him. "Where was God when she died?"

The priest didn't answer for a long time.

Later, when they met again, she said to him, "When your wife died, God's heart was the first to break."

Listening to stories at the jail, it's not hard to think of God sitting down on the sidewalk or in the sand, holding this Beloved Child, and heaving great sobs of grief. God's heart is the first to break.     

I pray that everyone who listens to the grief of another has that same openness of heart.

04 October 2012

What Most Tourists Don't See

I can't let the Feast of St. Francis slip away without a look at one of my favorite places in his home town.

This is Santa Maria Maddalena outside the city of Assisi. It's a little chapel, definitely not on the tourist track. If you're on the bus between Rome and Florence, you make a three-hour stop in Assisi. You don't get to see much beyond the Basilica of St. Francis. Most people never see the Basilica of St. Clare at the opposite end of town. And it's the rare person who comes to this little place.

But in Francis' day, this was a place where lepers were cared for. One of the stories about this Italian playboy's conversion tells of his meeting a leper and kissing him. That encounter, among others, changed his life.

There's nothing fancy to see here. No gift shop. But the memory of fragile people spills out of the stones. 

This chapel reminds me of the county jail in downtown Seattle. In its day, the Ick Factor was strong. Who'd want to go to this place and be around those people? And yet, grace and peace and healing abound.

You can read more about it here.

02 October 2012

In Need of a Blessing

To receive this blessing,
all you have to do
is let your heart break.
Let it crack open.
Let it fall apart
so that you can see
its secret chambers,
the hidden spaces
where you have hesitated
to go. ...

I was cleaning up some space on my computer tonight and stumbled upon these two lovely things. The picture is of St. Christine the Astonishing. The blessing, I can't remember where I found it or that I'd saved it, but tonight, it was what I needed to see.

01 October 2012

Walk a Mile in My Shoes

I only Googled "jail shoes" on a whim. Why then was I surprised to find this among the images that resulted? I laughed. "They'll never believe me," I thought.

"They" of course are the people I see at the county jail, the ones wearing red shirts and pants and orange socks. It's not an outfit anyone would choose to wear (though the number of images that come up when you Google "jail outfit" might lead you to think otherwise). 

At any rate, I was thinking about their shoes. Rose and I were finishing up a prayer service, sitting in a tight circle with eight men. It had already been a note-worthy service. We are mostly there to accompany the men in their prayer for one another. We'd listened to the readings and reflected on them together, prayed some general prayers for a variety of things (think of those General Intercessions at Sunday Mass). There'd been a few giggles during that portion. One prayer was labeled "for those with addictions" and the man who read it said he was stressing out about going to court with a drug conviction because he was looking at considerable time in prison over his addictions, and wasn't it clear that God chose this prayer for him to read?

The group grunted understanding, said, "It figures, bro," and we went on.

Except we couldn't go on. That same young man was called out of our circle, so he left.

Prayer continued. We blessed one another with holy water, a reminder of the freedom that Baptism promises us, and then we prayed. Joe said he wanted prayer for his family. Dan prayed for Joe. Then Dan wanted prayer for his girlfriend who'd stopped answering the phone three weeks ago. Doug prayed for Dan. Doug said his mom was in the hospital and Jesse prayed for her. Jesse wondered out loud how his wife and kids were going to have enough to eat since he wasn't home and it was the end of the month. 

Around and around the circle we went. Each man said what it was that needed prayer and the man next to him gave voice to the prayer. We all said "Amen."

And then our drug addicted friend came back to the circle looking stunned. 

"I just talked to my lawyer," he said. "I'm not going to prison. I'm going to treatment." He sat down hard. "It's because you prayed." There was a moment of awe.

Down the hall, I could hear the sounds of shift change. We needed to conclude. We pulled the circle in tighter and that's when I really noticed the shoes.

I tapped Tom on my left and said, "Would you put one of your shoes in the middle here?" He did.

"This shoe represents every person in this circle, in each dorm, on this floor, and on every floor of the jail today. And this shoe," Tom added his other shoe, "is for every officer on shift now, and coming on shift soon." Jim put a shoe into the circle and we prayed for all the other staff who keep the jail running;
     --for the officers on the street;
     --for their lawyers, and the prosecutors, and the judges;
     --for their families who counted on them;
     --for the people who'd given up on them;
     --for the communities they'd frightened or put on edge;
     --for people who make laws motivated by fear or need to control;
     --for those in prison around the world;
     --for those on death row.

We piled up the prayers as we piled up the shoes. Then we extended our hands and asked God to bless all that the shoes represented.

Leaving that place, every shoe is a reminder of the prayer that surrounds and carries us. Every step is a prayer, especially when we have no words and don't know how to pray. Even plastic shoes can be a sign of God's lavish mercy and boundless care.

And tonight I think of a praying pilgrim named Claire who will set out for the Camino in Spain soon. Claire, pray for us. We pray for you as you continue The Way. You can follow Claire's journey here.