On Prison Ministry

Last Friday, through the invitation of Ann Bezerides (thank you Ann), I had the opportunity to attend an extraordinary conference on Prison Ministry at Boston College, and Fr. Antony has asked me to speak about it. So this is my chance to announce that St. Mary Orthodox Church already has an active Prison Ministry and there are many easy ways for you to help out.

But first, let me share what is happening in the field, and report from the Conference on the Church in 21st Century.

When prisons were first established in this country, they were conceived as places of rehabilitation. A penitentiary system involved penance and repentance, the opportunity for change and growth. But as a country we have moved from that model to one of retribution and punishment for being a criminal, a bad person, one who is simply better off forgotten by society. And that's what happens to most people behind bars. They are out of sight and out of our minds. They are the forgotten.

As we look at our society now, there are many indicators that we are on the downside of a bell curve, by looking at markers in the education system, the health care system, and the criminal justice system. With 5% of the world's population, we have 25% of the world's prisoners. How did this happen? And now that most states are facing budget crises, and with elected officials looking for ways to cut budgets, prisons come to the top of the list. And there are many ways that states have found to save money in prisons. Here are a few: ration toilette paper, furlough the staff and corrections officers, keep prisoners locked up in their cells 23 hours a day – with one hour each day for exercise, lay off teachers teaching in jails, cut visiting programs down to two weekends a month, and cut out drug rehabilitation because we simply can't afford it. And what happens? Well of course, violence escalates.

This is a crisis. It is also a huge challenge and opportunity for radical change. Because there is another way. The real question is not, "how can I punish you?" Or "how can I offer retribution for your crime", but rather, "how were you hurt? How can I help you? What do you need?"The prison ministry team at St. Mary's composed of Mitrophan Chin, Anthony Bernardi and a few students from Holy Cross, last year were invited to go out to Concord and teach inmates how to pray with icons. We were warmly welcomed, and our 12-18 students attended with regularity, enthusiasm and great interest. After Jeff Wasilko and I took high quality pictures of all the festal icons in our church - I have to thank him and his "soft box", these were then downloaded to my laptop and served as the centerpiece of our presentation each week. We were allowed to project icons on a screen in the prison chapel and this formed the basis of a class on salvation through the images of holy iconography. We would go in at night, and hear blasting on the overhead, outside speakers, "movement for iconology". I thought they got it wrong, it's iconography, but no, the guards were right – we were teaching the logos, the word and understanding about icons, not the graphos – the "how to". The participants were very observant and grateful. We were able to hand out Orthodox Study Bibles, invite the iconographer herself, Xenia Pokrovsky to describe her work, and Fr. Antony came in to lead us all in Vesper's and prayer – and the men loved it.

These images of saints and saving images of our Lord I think were like bringing water to a desert. As St. Irineaus of Lyons said, "The glory of God is the person fully alive". This was a chance for us all to be fully alive. There was so much that happened that I can't really recall it all, but I have a Prison Ministry mailing list that I could invite you to via the bulletin. Here are some stories: When confronted with the image of Zachheus in the tree, and reading about how "today salvation has come to this house" and thinking about how Zaccheus had screwed his neighbors over all those years, the inmates recognized how Zaccheus felt terrible about himself and how his encounter with Christ was a healing of toxic shame, which is behind every violent crime. You see, God sees us not as we were, but as we are, with the possibility of love and nurture and hope. I learned there is a direct correlation between unresolved grief and incarceration, real grief that causes someone to kill someone else, or grief that is covered over by drug use and leads to crime and arrest.

When we saw the icon of Lazarus coming out of the tomb, they said, "but he stinketh", and they recognized that they too stinketh. And these insights came with laughter.

I met a priest named Fr. George who told me a story of an encounter with a gang member. Fr. George asked the gang member what his name was: "Sniper" – no son, what's your real name – "Gonzales" - OK, that's your last name – but what does your mother call you? – "Cabrun" which means "bastard" – you know, I was thinking more of your birth certificate – there was a long pause and then quietly he said ,"Napoleon" – but my son, what did you mother call you when you were a baby? – a very long pause and then in a whisper, he said, "Napito" – so finally Fr. George cut through all those names, and called him by his true name – in the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, "Call me by my true name".

I think we may continue our ministry by learning contemplative centering prayer together, but I am waiting to organize my volunteers and see who else is interested. Our effort is non–denominational, that is everyone is welcome to our class. We didn't design it only for Orthodox inmates, although there are Orthodox in prison too.

A parish like St. Mary's which has its eyes focused on a mission of spreading the Gospel and is inclusive of everyone, and wants to provide a presence to those who are unwanted and unloved, but not forgotten has an enormous opportunity here. And there are very simple ways of showing kindness to people who feel a great void. Father Antony has suggested that we might even be able to organize ourselves around this mission – even if that takes time.

Some of these guys have been in prison for years and have never seen the Internet, cell phones or even a Starbucks, and then they are released and expected to "get a job" in today's economy – that's almost impossible. Then the shame comes back – the old contacts resume – and prison becomes a revolving door. To deal with this, the Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry Team is sponsoring the Lazarus Project in which 3 volunteers offer to meet with a newly released inmate once a week for 18 months. This is an extraordinary opportunity for accountability for everyone.

We could do simple things like have our Sunday school make up valentine's cards that we could bring to the prisoners. There is so much generosity from youth. In another prison near a University, some students were invited in and they were appalled by what the inmates were eating, so they offered to start an Organic Garden, which is now huge, and the inmates are eating fresh vegetables for the very first time. It could be as simple as bringing in cookies to a meeting – just little ways for the men to know they are not forgotten. You might be surprised that these guys like to give back too. Every year, they participate in the "Walk for Hunger" by walking 20 miles around the perimeter of the courtyard.

I have two more stories from California: the first one involved bringing in guest volunteers who had been approved, but when they arrived, they were told they weren't on the list, so out they went to the Parking Lot. "What do we do?" they asked. One said, "Look, I know the Producer of the Movie 'The Hangover' and he knows Gov. Schwarzenegger. Maybe he can help us." So they made the call, and the Governor called the Warden at home and before they knew it, they were ushered in without security checks with 20 minutes left, one broke out her violin and the all the women were anointed together. It was a prison break – a break in that is. There was so much unexpected freedom and joy that night, just by finding ways to cross over and dissolve the distance.

But the best story was about "getting on the bus". There was a group of nuns who decided to visit a nearby prison with 8,000 incarcerated women. They spent time in their car on the drive over coming up with their plans, but after they arrived, they simply asked the prisoners, "What do you need?" The answer came, "We never see our children. We want to see our children." So the nuns went to the prison administration and were told, "No. It can't be done. Too much liability." But the nuns replied, don't worry, we will get the bishop to underwrite the insurance. "Oh. OK, then you can try." But they never asked the Bishop. They simply got the addresses of the kids and three buses and drove those five hours to the prison and brought along a camera. I have never seen such moving pictures of reunion with little babies falling asleep on their mother's breasts and reading stories together on their laps – they were so beautiful - I couldn't help but think – get these women out of jail – many of whom might have taken the fall for someone else in a bust. The tears started to flow and then they flowed again when the children had to say goodbye to their mommies. But this outreach, which started with that simple question, "What do you need? How can we help you?", now has 60 buses taking 1,200 children to meet their parents each Mother's and Father's day. And now it's a wildly successful nonprofit in California, with children raising money on tricycle-a-thons and octogenarians sending in donations from nursing homes.

We at St. Mary's have the people, we have the freedom; we are grounded in the Gospel, but are we asking these simple questions? As Jesus Christ said, we will only be asked a few questions on the Last Day, among them; did you visit me in prison? Did you visit me in Prison?, a question so specific, so easily answered. Because there is no us and them. In the end, there is no "them" to visit. There is only "us", fellow human travelers on the journey of salvation. I would like to end, by reading today's Epistle again in the context of what we have just heard.

Ephesians chapter 2: Brethren, Christ is our peace, who has made us one. He has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself a new man, so making peace, and might reconcile us to God in one body, bringing hostility to an end. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him we have access to the Father in one Spirit. So you are no longer strangers or sojourners, but are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, and Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple; in whom you are built for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Thank you and thanks be to God.