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It is Pentecost weekend when we visit, a maximum-security men’s prison in Western NY. I thought my purpose was to be the hands and heart of God to these men, but what I did not expect is that I would witness a faith far deeper than my own in these “men in green.”
The men refer to us as “those from the outside.” We “outsiders” truly felt the divide between this walled prison and our Western New York neighborhoods, once the gate locks behind us. But for three days we create a sanctuary in the prison gym, where the outsiders and the men in green, are Christians united in faith and a shared conviction: Christ’s message of love and forgiveness. I experience the Spirit profoundly, deeply, and densely.
As the rookie of the team, I work the morning registration desk for three days. Each day at 8:30am, eighteen, humble men walk to the table to check in and receive their name tags. We serve lots of fresh coffee, and our REC team lines up to greet them when they arrive. Hospitality at its best.
He registered his name as Righty on Day 1 and 2. But on Day 3, he registers his name as Jordan, not Righty. He was full of smiles and energy on Pentecost Sunday. He tells me he had too much coffee yesterday and couldn’t sleep last night. He pulls out a piece of paper from his pocket and reads a poem he wrote at 2am that morning, titled “Our Lord.” It is a prayer that spoke from his heart, poetically asking God to free his father from his addiction to alcohol. The poem closes with Jordan committing to taking care of those around him in prison. This all happened in the registration line. I am in tears experiencing Jordan’s forgiveness and faith commitment. Did I witness a conversion? Was that conversion Righty’s or mine?
His name is BC. He has a 30 years to life sentence. He has spent 28 years behind bars. He was just a young adult when convicted. He leads a weekly Bible study at the jail. He tells of his love for his mother, and her love for him. “I love you” BC would say to her, “I love you more” his mother would reply. It started as a childhood banter between them; this loving exchange of words now continued for 28 years when they talked on the phone. BC didn’t think he would survive his mom’s death. He could not attend his mom’s funeral as he was in an out-of-state prison. He speaks on how Jesus carried him when she passed away. He credits his faith for keeping him alive and focused. He is concerned about the many terrorist attacks happening now and radical extremists. He studies the Koran and that is not what the Muslim’s faith teaches. I share tips on Osteoporosis therapy that my sister-in-law shared with me as we both are starting to have bone deterioration. He is out of coffee and peanut butter that he purchases from the commissary, so it is a thumbs up when Bill (REC team member) hands out Ritz crackers with peanut butter and we both sit up straight in our chairs working on our posture. As I am his prayer partner, he commits to praying a Rosary for me daily.
Joe gives praise to a fellow inmate Mark, “Mark is always there to help me and others and he will never accept anything in return.” Mark has attended many RECs, he makes it a point to talk to me, “the rookie.” He explains that parole is within a few years. Mark encourages the men to attend any sessions, like REC, that give them the opportunity to interact with those on the outside, so they can transition back and not use the language and tone of prison. He is planning to give a “Christ in action” witness talk at the next REC. He gives advice to others “do not read the REC take-home material right away, pull them out in a week or month when you need an infusion of faith, when you need to recharge your faith batteries.” REC for Mark is the recharging of his faith. He explained that for many of these men the only visitors are us, their families will not come or they may live too far away to visit. Mark asks me, “what will you tell “the outside” about the men you have met here?”
During one of our discussions, the gym door blew open and sunlight filled the room. A CO (Correction Officer) quickly went to the door, looked outside and closed the door ensuring it was locked. I asked him what happened, he said there was no explanation, it was not opened by the guards at prison. Could this be the Holy Spirit, Herself, descending upon us?
The men repeatedly tell us how they are thankful to God that people from the outside come to them, bringing God’s message of love and forgiveness. Our leader, responds to the men in green and the Correctional officers asking, “what do we like about you?”, with, “Everything”
We ask the men, when did you experience God here in prison?
- Mark was in the pit for 30 days in another facility, breaking down, when he saw the light of candles from the REC outside his window. That gave him peace and sustained him through the rest of the solitary confinement.
- Tom loves to cook, has two children, likes to keep his conversations simple, was born in Dominican Republic. “I was in the pit for 30 days, I was at an all-time low, I wanted food not the mush being given to me. I open my Bible and asked God for food. At that moment of prayer, fellow inmate hands me a sandwich.” Tom prays for the Venezuelan’s that are starving. He tells me to eat my rice and beans in smaller portions as it will digest better. I tell him of my son’s trip to DR, and how he stayed in small village, as he built latrines, and beans and rice were the staple. Tom asks me “Do you believe I will be given a second chance?”
- Jose was on suicide watch in prison. He read his Bible out loud to sooth and settle himself. The inmate from the next cell told him he would have killed himself if it were not for the words from the Bible.
Of the 18 men that came, all the ones at my table and all those that spoke believe in God, read the Bible, pray, speak to their faith, and believe that being in prison is part of their journey. All were kind (brought us coffee, water, cleaned up after meals and the event), respectful, decent, and Christian. Their prayers, stories, were inspiring and humble.
At my table, Tom, George, and Joe speak of love of family and taking care of those on the inside. Donna, table facilitator, told them they would be our Christian friends if we were on the outside. Yes, it would be hard to distinguish between a talk with my faith sharing group and this REC conversation at my table. We all lean in during the conversation, listen intently, and support each other. At 3pm, the REC ends and the Correctional Officers come to escort the men back to their blocks. Tom and Joe stand tall and stiffen, their face turns from relaxed and warm to cold and rigid. This image of transformation, I will not forget. And for the 99th time in those 3 days: I cry.
Jesus, you who healed the sick, fed the hungry, and spoke words of hope, grant us the grace to give generously from what we have, whether our money, time, talents, joy, or hope. You give us all that we have and intend that we share with our sisters and brothers. Teach us generosity and openness of heart and action.