By Gino Sevacos Journalism Guild Writer The following was published in the San Quentin Newspaper as a two-part interview with Father George Williams, the Catholic Chaplain for San Quentin. The article is reproduced here in total. How did you come to work at San Quentin? I had visited here a few times when Father Barber […]
Caregiving from behind the walls
This is my second week working in the Hospice program here at Lansing max/med. security prison. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster, but mostly rewarding.
My Hospice patients name is Mr. Kelly. He is 68 and serving 40 months for possession of less than one gram of meth. Nonviolent offender, but does have past criminal history. He looks healthy, talks fine, but feels weak. He has stage four cancer of the liver. It has traveled throughout his body and at this point too troublesome to treat with his health.
I basically am going into this with little to no training. I’ve gained a “Human Services” certificate from Louisiana State University which consisted of taking 15 credit hours in service related classes, so I have that eduactional experence. (That was actually one of my first long term goals I accomplishes in prison. When I got that cerficicate, I was working as a…
View original post 700 more words
I arrived on the unit and set up while the guards announced that Bible study was available.
No one came.
I waited a bit longer and prayed. I acknowledged to myself and to God that this study wasn’t about me. Where do I see God in the maximum-security unit at that very moment? I look around and wait in the moment: now, here, this.
Eventually one of the regulars came into the room.
Then another joined him.
And then another.
Finally, there were 11 guys that joined me for Bible Study in the maximum-security unit – a mix of guys from rival gangs meeting together to seek God.
Our opening discussion was about stall tactics – what do we do to put off doing something?
Some phrases that came up were:
- Ask me again when this show is over
- Just give me 10 minutes and I’ll get to it
- I’m busy now, I do it later
- What? I didn’t hear you.
- I don’t understand. Can you explain it a different way?
Some other tactics:
- Incomplete – if the request was “take out all the garbage” then just take out the bathroom garbage
- Do a poor job so they won’t ask you again – leave big streaks if they ask you to wash the windows
- Do it wrong – mix whites and darks when doing laundry; give the kids ice cream for breakfast; bring home the wrong items from the grocery store
I asked if lawyers ever used delay tactics. A collective groan arose from the group. They were all too familiar with this. One man mentioned a lawyer whose goal was to always put off going to trial because, “You haven’t lost the case yet if you haven’t gone to court.”
Another man asked his defense attorney how soon they could get a court date. The attorney said, “But if we have the trial sooner it just means you’re going to prison sooner.”
I asked about stall tactics that we use with God. The most common one was, “God, how do I know it’s really You?”
That was a great lead-in to our scripture. But before we read it I gave them some background on Gideon and the situation at that time. Then we saw how God’s angel had a sense of humor.
When Gideon is first introduced he is hiding inside a winepress trying to process grain. The angel says, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12b)
It’s a modern-day equivalent to hiding in a coat closet and covering yourself with a bunch of old boots and shoes, and the angel saying, “My, my, aren’t you one bad-ass gangsta’!”
As the angel describes how Gideon will be used by God, Gideon’s response, albeit politely, is to question and delay:
- Pardon me
- but if
Even after the angel responds Gideon persists:
- Pardon me
- My clan is weak
- I am the weakest
Then Gideon takes delaying to the next level:
- give me a sign that it is really you talking to me
- wait until I come back
Even after God uses him, Gideon still further delays by asking for more and contradictory signs.
Judges 6:36-40 (NIV)
36 Gideon said to God, “If You will save Israel by my hand as You have promised—37 look, I will place a wool fleece on the threshing floor. If there is dew only on the fleece and all the ground is dry, then I will know that You will save Israel by my hand, as You said.” 38 And that is what happened. Gideon rose early the next day; he squeezed the fleece and wrung out the dew—a bowlful of water.
39 Then Gideon said to God, “Do not be angry with me. Let me make just one more request. Allow me one more test with the fleece, but this time make the fleece dry and let the ground be covered with dew.” 40 That night God did so. Only the fleece was dry; all the ground was covered with dew.
Frequently my role in these studies is to provide space and a scripture, and then to step back and listen to how God has already been speaking to and through the men. This was one of those nights where I didn’t have to say much.
As they observed Gideon’s delay tactics and compared it to their own techniques, they wondered about how Gideon eventually became yielded to God. In their own lives many have made promises — “God if you get me out of this I’ll turn my life around.” But as soon as they are released they go back to their old ways.
They began discussing the idea of true repentance. Some of these men long to break the cycle of addiction, violence, and incarceration.
They wrestle with God’s capacity for forgiveness. Some felt they had to plea-bargain their sins with God, that if there were extenuating circumstances, perhaps they could be forgiven, but there was no forgiveness if someone murdered out of greed, or killed several people, or hurt a child. Several men knew a guy at a nearby prison the was serving life without parole for killing four people in drug deal gone bad. But this man was now serving God even in prison. There was forgiveness for him.
Another man found himself abusing God’s forgiveness – “I can do anything I want because, in the end God will forgive me.” But he was seeing the emptiness and futility of that lifestyle.
As the study wrapped up I explained how God didn’t kick Gideon to the curb because of his unbelief. He met Gideon where he was, and it transformed Gideon’s life.
I need help, please was a bit of expressive language that some good teacher or therapist helped our son with autism to use years ago.
For a person like our son, navigating an array of impairments like fine motor and personal care skills, the request is vital for opening a bottle of juice or getting to the bathroom on time. (Of course he also learned to use it to enlist mom and dad for remedial action; I need help, please could signal a wardrobe change or a bathroom cleanup.)
It’s a sweet phrase in our family life. It’s entered that volume of cute things the kids used to say, so my wife and I might raise our voice to a childlike tenor and say it if we can’t find some item around the house.
But it came to mind in a more serious context this week when I asked a…
View original post 155 more words
For the men who are too violent or unstable even for maximum security there is high-max. This weekend another chaplain and I had the privilege of serving the men in high-max.
For the cells in high-max there is a 6-inch square window in the door, a small heavily screened vent that they can talk through, and a tray slot for their meals that is kept padlocked. The men are in their cell 23 hours a day. When a man is let out of his cell he is the only one out at that time. He can talk to others who are still locked in their own cells but there is no chance for human contact.
In the past when we have served communion we would wait outside the door of the unit. If a man wanted communion they would let him out and we would serve the elements through a 3-inch square opening in the door – just large enough to pass the wafer but not large enough for a hand to pass through.
This time the guards opted to have go into the unit and walk cell-to-cell. The process would be as follows:
- If a man wanted to receive communion he would stand at the window of his door
- We would speak to the man through the screened vent in the door, get his name, and verify if he wanted to receive communion
- If he did want communion then the guard who was with us would unlock and open the tray slot
- I would dip the wafer in juice and hand the wafer to him through the tray slot
- Immediately after the man had taken the wafer the guard would lock the tray slot as I was praying with the man
When we went into the first unit the guards told us that there was one cell where they were not willing to open the tray slot. We could speak to the man if he and we so desired. But all week this man had flung feces out whenever the tray slot was open. As it turns out that man was asleep when we came through.
Now. Here. This.
In Barking to the Choir Father Gregory Boyle writes:
The word “obey” has its origin in “listening.” It is difficult to truly and deeply listen. When a homie is sitting in front of my desk, the mantra on continuous loop in my head is “Stay listening.” Another handy one is “Now. Here. This.” Listen here and now and only to this person.
As we serve communion it is important for me to be attentive to each man, to listen as he says his name and shares his pray requests. It is important that I look each man in the eye. It is important that I see him. It is too easy to still be thinking about the last man we spoke to, or to look at the man in the next cell we are going to. But I am called to be present.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26 Living Bible
23 For this is what the Lord himself has said about his Table, and I have passed it on to you before: That on the night when Judas betrayed him, the Lord Jesus took bread, 24 and when He had given thanks to God for it, He broke it and gave it to His disciples and said, “Take this and eat it. This is my body, which is given for you. Do this to remember me.” 25 In the same way, He took the cup of wine after supper, saying, “This cup is the new agreement between God and you that has been established and set in motion by my blood. Do this in remembrance of me whenever you drink it.” 26 For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are retelling the message of the Lord’s death, that He has died for you. Do this until He comes again.
I prayed with several men who would be heading to prison shortly.
I prayed with a man who would be entering a drug treatment program.
There were a number of men who had no request for themselves, but rather for their families. I prayed that their families would be surrounded by people who would support and encourage them. I prayed for God’s hedge of protection for their families.
One of the men we met with would likely be diagnosed as having schizophrenia with paranoia. He asked me if he was marked for death. When the other chaplain prayed and asked that God would bless him, the man thought the chaplain had asked God to curse him. Yet deep within that man’s troubled mind was the desire to receive communion. Perhaps this sacrament was a touchstone to a spiritual connection that he desired.
26 For every time you eat this bread and drink this cup you are retelling the message of the Lord’s death, that He has died for you. Do this until He comes again.
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus
Oh, precious is the flow
That makes me white as snow
No other fount I know
Nothing but the blood of Jesus (by Robert Lowry)
I’ve had quite enough blood this year, and it’s only March. I’ve had enough state sanctioned killing. Enough congressional betrayal for coin. I’ve had enough violent words calling for more blood. Enough crowds demanding imprisonment. I’ve had enough blood. And yet, this time of year we Christians revel in the blood. The blood that flows, giving life to an unquenchable thirst for more blood. There is so much blood, and I just want to get away from the violence.
This Holy Week (the week that remembers Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem, his last meal, betrayal, death and resurrection) I find myself…
View original post 566 more words
A friend who is a new mother posted some photos on Facebook showing the other side of motherhood. She said it was easy for her to look at other people’s photos with their children who were smiling and happy and then wonder what was wrong with her because, while there were those happy times with her new son and she truly did adore him, there were also the confused, frustrated, sleep-deprived, bone-weary times as well. So, to balance out the narrative she posted some of her photos showing that side of being a mom.
Reading this blog it may seem that jail Bible studies are always peaceful, powerful, God-filled experiences. The truth is that sometimes they are filled with strife, confusion, and chaos. Over the years I’ve learned that even those times are still God-filled.
I decided to go to the jail a bit later since I usually arrive on the floor during pill-call and end up having to wait for that to finish.
When I arrived at 7:30 a lockdown had just cleared 3 minutes earlier.
I arrived on the floor but had to wait another 20 minutes for haircuts to finish since they were using the room that I use for Bible studies.
I started the study with 5 guys.
Shortly after we started two guys got into an argument about race relations. (Maybe I need to retract that blog entry on Breaking Down Racism Behind Bars) I tried several times to get them back on track with no success. I finally said I’d have to end the study if we couldn’t get back on topic, at which point one of the belligerents stormed out of the room. (I haven’t had to use that technique for years)
We continued the study (John 20:24-31) for another 10 minutes with the 4 remaining men.
Then pill-call came and a few of the guys had to step out for that.
After pill-call ended we continued the study for another 5 minutes which came to a sudden close as the facility went on lock-down.
I waited at the control desk of the floor. The CO indicated that it has been like this all week.
After an extended period of waiting I was finally able to leave – or so I thought.
As I was about to get on the elevator another call came through: Man down, not breathing.
I waited for that emergency to clear.
After more waiting I eventually was able to leave the building.
During Holy Week it is easy to envision the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the Passion, and the Resurrection through “Hollywood” eyes that see everything as holy and sacred. But the “holy and sacred” was taking place in the midst of everyday human chaos. As the crucifixion took place there were crowds around yelling, gambling, cursing, farting, and arguing. Babies were born, people were cheated, some went hungry that day while others got drunk. Unnoticed by all but a handful, God was doing the most powerful work since creation, even as the world went about its business.
God is still doing holy and sacred things even against the backdrop of our chaos.
Some days are more chaotic than others.
This is a marathon, not a sprint.
Ephesians 6:12 The Message (MSG)
10-12 And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and He wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.