Note: For more background on serving communion in the jail please read this blog entry: Communion In The Max
Early in the morning on Christmas Eve about 25 of us gathered to offer communion to people in the jail. Over 255 inmates received communion that morning.
In some sections where it is allowed the volunteers led a 20 minute service with readings and songs. In other units the volunteers went from cell to cell offering communion. Finally in units such as maximum security where it is more restricted communion was served to one man at a time through a 3 inch by 3 inch slot in a 2 inch thick metal door of the cell block.
The gentleman who had led Bible studies in the maximum security unit before me was there to help serve. He had also invited two others that I knew from church who had never participated in anything like this before. So there were four of us here to serve the guys in the three units of maximum security.
The rules of the institution only allow two people at the outside of the door to the unit, so two of us went to unit while the other two went to a different unit.
The man who had previously led Bible studied relayed the following (I have changed names to protect privacy):
As I mentioned yesterday after the communion service, I had the rare opportunity to meet one of the guys that used to come to bible study.
Luis started coming to the study early on when I was assigned to that section. A very tough looking chap, young, tall and burly with tattoos all over his neck and arms, and a long braid of hair going half way down his back. When he started attending the studies, he generally sat in the back and would occasionally chime into the conversation with confrontational questions. One could tell he was struggling with bitter thoughts regarding life, faith and God. However, as time progressed and he continued coming to the study, I saw how God began to soften his heart. His questions went from confrontational to candid, with a real interest in wanting to know more about Christ’s redeeming power, the forgiveness of sins, and God’s plan for his life.
Unfortunately, after a few months he stopped coming, and I never saw him again… until today.
As we walked into the unit to serve communion, he was being escorted out of his cell, shackles on his ankles and hands connected by a long chain. He was led right to the gate where we were standing with our communion elements, while the guards arranged his transfer out. The definition of a divine appointment, we were both standing a couple of feet from each other, separated by a gate. His face brightened as he saw us and we said hi. We offered him communion and prayer, which he gladly accepted… and that was it. He was escorted out and we moved on to serve the rest of the inmates in the section.
I prayed for him throughout the rest of the day, wishing I had said more or done more. But I know that even that fleeting act of taking communion and receiving prayer was used powerfully by God.
Please keep him in your thoughts. Pray that God continues to minister to him, and His mercy will always be near.
Meanwhile I was serving communion along with one of the other guys who had never done this before. The structure is very simple. The guard announces that anyone who wishes communion should turn on their light to signal that they wish to participate. For one tier the guard would let one person out at a time. The man would come to the door. I’d explain that I’ll dip the wafer in the juice and hand it to him through the door slot. I’d ask him his first name. I would use his name as I offered the elements. I’d then pray for him by name. Using a man’s first name makes a powerful impact in a place where they are otherwise referred to only by a last name or and ID number.
Over the past year I’ve gotten to know some of these men and can pray more specifically for them. After receiving communion the man would return to his cell. At that point the next person would come.
For whatever reason the guard let all of the guys from the other tier out at the same time so there was actually a bit of fellowship as they waited in line to receive the elements.
One of the things I have come to notice happens after we have finished praying and the man looks at me through the glass. We see each other as human, as people deeply needing God’s grace, as individuals known by God.
At the end of serving I’ll look down at my hand which is now streaked with stains from the juice. It becomes a visual reminder:
Ephesians 2:13 (NIV)
13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
Watching for those in pain
One of the things we look for as we serve is for those men who appear to be having a particularly difficult time. This can literally save someone’s life. There is a rise in attempted suicides at this time of year.
In maximum security there is a lot of time where a man is alone with his thoughts. Many guys refer to this as serving “hard time” because the mind can sometimes be the cruelest most unrelenting jailer. As we were discussing afterwards two of the volunteers recalled one man who seemed to be having a hard time. They remembered his cell number. We passed that information on to the head chaplain who consulted with the mental health officer to get the man the support he needed.
1 Peter 1:18-21 The Message
18-21 Your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty-headed life you grew up in. He paid with Christ’s sacred blood, you know. He died like an unblemished, sacrificial lamb. And this was no afterthought. Even though it has only lately—at the end of the ages—become public knowledge, God always knew he was going to do this for you. It’s because of this sacrificed Messiah, whom God then raised from the dead and glorified, that you trust God, that you know you have a future in God.
Reflections from another volunteer
Several years ago I attended a workshop presented by the Main Jail Chaplain on the topic of opportunities to serve at the Jail. The chaplain invited attendees to participate in helping to serve Communion at the Jail during Holy Week and on Christmas Eve. I felt called to do that, that it’s a sacred privilege, and have participated as often possible since.
On Christmas Eve day one could think of any number of things to be doing vs. going to the Main Jail to participate in serving Communion. On the other hand, what could be more meaningful on the eve of the day when we celebrate the birth of Jesus?
The volunteers meet at 0700, since the inmates will already have had breakfast and the “serving” needs to happen before programming begins. I was ever so grateful to have been given a ride downtown by another volunteer, and especially after our having waited in opposite ends of the park ‘n ride lot for one another…
Once at the Jail, and in the area outside the Chaplain’s office, volunteers are invited to introduce themselves and tell the group which church they represent. Then, before we set out, we ourselves are served Communion. Each time I’ve participated, I’ve been with a different team, and I’ve appreciated each experience. This time I was with three others, one a pastor who is a weekly volunteer and also active in the Jail Re-Entry program, a woman who will complete her M.Div. program in the Spring, and a Spanish-speaking man who is a regular volunteer. I felt that I was in good company as we set out to serve gang members exclusively.
At first we went to various cells where those wishing to be served would put on their outside light. I was glad that we could meet face-to-face with the guys. I served mostly with Jose (not his actual name) who spoke in Spanish. Even though I didn’t know the actual words he said as he held the cup of grape juice, and I dipped the wafer in it before offering it to each person, remembering the English words, I got the gist.
Almost without exception, the guys welcomed having prayer offered for them and/or their loved ones. I could sense the sadness of one guy who asked for prayer for his homeless family who was staying with a grandmother at that time. And perhaps at least twice, when we went to a cell housing two guys, one of which had expressed a desire to receive Communion, after the second guy watched the process, he too, stepped forward to receive.
On one unit at the Jail on 12/14 morning, one CO (corrections officer) told our team that at least two staff had “called in sick”, and they were working with a “skeleton crew”, so-to-speak; nevertheless, he seemed to take “it all” in stride.
In one location we were able to gather a group of six or so guys in a room where we had about a 20 minute service, including some Christmas carols; in another and larger area we had a similar service, though not everyone participated. The guys seemed to be somewhat attentive, in any case…
As we parted each of the guys thanked us and shook our hands. We all wished one another a “Merry Christmas”. Realizing that there are those inmates who never get visitors and others who seldom do, having been able to share the Light of God’s love on this special day was a good feeling.
And Another Volunteer’s Observations
We went into the old part of the jail. This part of the jail has dorms of different sizes, and the paint is old, the lighting is dark, and the dorms are a little crowded, and many of the men were still asleep.
I refer to them as men and not as inmates, nor prisoners, because we are all much more than our current circumstances.
As we went around, the sheriff’s deputies would announce, “Communion! Come to the gate if you want communion!” Sometimes no one would come.
Some of dorms housed 30 people, and sometimes only two. Sometimes a dorm had only one person in it.
There were a handful of cells for individuals. Two of them had no light, and the glass and covering was so thick that I could not see who was inside. But the small box in the door opened, and we handed the sacraments, and they took it in their hands.
At one of the dorms, a man came to the gate, with his shirt off and gang tattoos, and he knelt down at the door and opened his mouth at the opening at the gate. I knew that I could not put it in his mouth, but my first thought was if I did, would he bite me?
My second thought was that he was kneeling down in maximum security, opening his mouth at the gate for the sacraments. At this moment, I knew that this is where I needed to be on this Christmas. I put the wafer dipped in grape juice in his hands, according to jail rules. He thanked me, and said Merry Christmas.
In the middle of the jail, and in a high security area, a man incarcerated with other men who he probably did not trust, knelt down, closed his eyes, and opened his mouth, with a guard standing next to me. Everyone is welcome at the table.
This was a Christmas that I won’t ever forget.