Month: December 2015

Communion Wafers and Life Savers

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.


Taking a Different Path Home


First a follow-up on the note I received last week. (see Pregnant, Poor, Squalid) The man did receive the help he needed. I have also asked for and received additional coaching on how to best handle this type of situation.

Even though I’ve been involved in Prison and Jail ministry for 16 years, my actual hours of experience is still fairly low. Figuring my time at 2 hours per week, and 50 weeks out of the year, that is 100 hours of experience per year. So over the past 16 years it’s about 1600 hours. That is less that one year at a full time job. A full time chaplain will get more experience in a month than I get in a year.

This means I need to ensure that I am teachable and open to instruction and correction.


Now for the update on tonight’s study.

There were 10 guys from the upper tier of the maximum security unit at Thursday night’s Bible Study. Only one or two were unfamiliar to me. Some of the regulars have been there since before I started a year ago.

We went around and said our first names. I cannot emphasize enough how important this is to the men. For an hour a week they are known, not by their ID number or their last name, but by their first name.


We talked about examples of coming late to a party. I once got lost on the way to a party and finally arrived at the house just as the last guests were leaving for the night.

In the Midwest punctuality is very important. However, here on the west coast it seems that, if an event is scheduled to start at 7pm, it means that at 7pm you start getting showered and changed and eventually arrive at the event. Traffic can make you even later. There are different time perceptions for different cultures.


Tonight’s scripture was:

Matthew 2:1-12

Wise Men from the East

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;
For out of you shall come a Ruler
Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”[a]

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. 11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.


In there own words, some men came looking for a king who was recently born. They went to the palace of King Herod, but Herod didn’t know anything about it. They brought in some experts who told the men to go to Bethlehem. They used a star to fine tune the location and found Mary and Jesus in a house. They gave some gifts and then went home after they had a strange dream.

We know the men came from the east, but we don’t know how far east: Syria, India, China. It may have taken some time for them to arrive. They weren’t there when Jesus was in the manger. They were late to the party. Jesus may have been 2 years old by this time. We talked about the attributes of a 2 year old. None of them seemed very “kingly”.

I gave them some background on Kind Herod. From Barclay’s commentary:

He was almost insanely suspicious. He had always been suspicious, and the older he became the more suspicious he grew, until, in his old age, he was, as someone said, “a murderous old man.” If he suspected anyone as a rival to his power, that person was promptly eliminated. He murdered his wife Mariamne and her mother Alexandra. His eldest son, Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, were all assassinated by him. Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had said, bitterly, that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son.


It turns out this resonated with the men. Here was something remarkably similar to their gang culture: paranoid leaders that react violently and capriciously to hold onto their power; gang members using guile and violence to improve their standing within the organization.

Many of the guys could relate to the story I told of another inmate who was afraid of his upcoming release because he had instructions to go attack the family of another man who was trying to leave the gang.

They agreed that it takes a lot of courage to leave the gang and to break the cycle of violence.


One man said, “It takes a lot of courage, but you have to do what’s right.”

The remarkable thing about his statement is that a year ago this same man appeared to be the shot caller for one of the gangs. He was the one who was giving instructions to other gang members via hand signals during the Bible Study. (see Gang Signs and Wonders)

Now he could just be playing me, but it seems like I’ve seen a real change in him over the past year. That hard edge seems to have dissipated. He has asked good, thoughtful questions at some of the studies, and has seemed genuinely interested in changing. He recognizes that changing is not without cost to him or even his family.

In verse 11 some of the men noticed that Joseph was not there. They wondered if he had abandoned Mary and Jesus. Other men in the group recalled that Joseph is mentioned when Jesus is 12. Their theory was that Joseph was at work trying to support the family when the wise men came.


We looked at the gifts:

…they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh

I explained that gold was a gift given to royalty and acknowledged Jesus as King.

Frankincense was used by priests so this gift acknowledged Jesus as our great high priest. I said that in an ancient language the word for priest literally meant “bridge builder”. Jesus builds the bridge between us and God.

Myrrh was used in burial rituals. It would be similar to giving a bottle of embalming fluid – which seems really creepy. Myrrh was a reminder of the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Gold, frankincense, and myrrh: The King and bridge-builder priest whose death and resurrection brings God’s grace and restoration.

But none of these gifts are suitable for a two year old. There value was not recognized until later.

I asked the men to give themselves a Christmas present this year – to think back over their lives and, rather than focusing on the pain and evil that they have experienced, instead to ask God to show them the times when they were shown kindness, when they were loved unconditionally even if just for a moment, to think back on the people that showed them that they were capable and worthwhile. Ask God to show them the gifts that they were given, but may not have recognized at the time.

12 Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

I asked them to consider what was God’s dream for them, and how would that dream allow them to go home a different way. A. R. Bernard said, “Without a vision for your future, you will always live in your past.” We talked at length about what is God’s vision for their future, and how will that cause them to return home a different way.


Pregnant, Poor, Squalid

There were 11 guys from the upper tier of the maximum security unit at tonight’s Bible study. It has probably been two months since I last met with the upper tier. I also had another volunteer tonight to help out for which I am grateful.

Before we got started one of the COs handed me a note from an inmate, addressed to the chaplain, and was written on a piece of cardboard. This is highly unusual. I won’t discuss the contents of the note but I did ask the COs to contact mental health services to have them check on this man. Please pray for him.


Back to our study…

Everyone said his name. One of the guys opened us in prayer and we sang Amazing Grace.

I asked what did anyone know about the Christmas Story. A few of the guys mentioned the Red Ryder BB gun referring to the 1983 film A Christmas Story. Others knew the story of the Grinch from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


A few of the guys knew the story of Jesus born in a manger. Only one man knew what a manger was.

This is the first time I’ve repeated a study. I used this same section exactly one year ago. We looked at Luke 2 tonight. I broke it up into two sections.

Luke 2:1-7

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.

Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.


I asked them to tell me what they understood of the story in their own words. They understood what a census was because they remember a census taker coming to the door. They wanted to know if Syria was the same as it is today.

They understood that Mary was pregnant and that she and Joseph were engaged but not married. Some of the guys could definitely relate to that situation. One of the guys said he got married about a month and a half before his son was born.

One of the guys explained that a manger was a food trough for the animals.

They were confused about “because there was no room for them in the inn.” I explained how instead of the census taker coming to the door the government forced everyone to travel at their own expense, and after they were counted they had to pay taxes as well. Because of everyone traveling there was no room at the Motel 6. They ended up staying in the barn with the animals. Mary and Joseph were too poor to have a crib so the baby was placed in a food trough.

Jesus came into a world that they understood:

  • pregnant but not married
  • poverty
  • squalid living conditions
  • inadequate resources for a baby

It’s a wonder that no one called Child Protective Services on Mary and Joseph.


Next we looked at:

Luke 2:8-20

Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold,[a] an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. 10 Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. 11 For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

15 So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. 17 Now when they had seen Him, they made widely[c] known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. 18 And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them.

6644_2012128270The Shepherds-low res

I explained that shepherds were not well respected. They were assumed to have problems telling their property from someone else’s. They were considered untrustworthy to the point that they were not allowed to testify in court. One man commented that some of his homies shouldn’t be allowed to testify because they were lying all the time too.

Since it seemed like an advertising blunder to send the angels to a group of people who were deemed untrustworthy, why did God choose the shepherds to receive the message?

The answers the guys provided were:

  • because they needed to hear it
  • because they were willing to receive it

The other thing the guys noticed is that the shepherd responded to the message. They went as they had been directed and saw for themselves.

There is a powerful sermon:

  • They needed the message
  • They were willing to receive the message
  • They responded to the message

This came from guys who may have been hearing the Christmas story for the first time.


The Annunciation & Incarnation

There were 9 guys from the lower tier of the maximum security unit at Bible study tonight.

There have been changing some of the procedures at the jail recently. Tonight that meant that all the guys were already in the room when I arrived. The side effect was that the guys had had a chance to talk among themselves for a while and were pretty wound up – lots of nervous energy – junior high kids on Red Bull kind of energy.

RedBullWe went around and said our names. I’ve gotten to know some of the guys well enough to know when they don’t say their real name. Yes, it was one of those kind of nights.

One of the guys opened in prayer and then we sang the first verse of Amazing Grace.

I asked about reputation – on the street, what made for a good or bad reputation? In prison, many have been to prison before, what made for a good or bad reputation?

They gave examples such as being consistent at doing something so that eventually you become known for that. They talked about being reliable – someone who could be counted on. Their examples weren’t much different than what you would hear form a group of business executives or civic leaders.

In prison there is a hierarchy of respect based on the crime someone is in for. Murders may be at the top of the hierarchy while rapists and child molesters may be at the bottom. There was a lot of contempt directed towards anyone who would harm a child.


I then asked if anyone knew what the word allegory meant. No one did, though one man recalled that Al Gore ran for president. For examples I offered the stories of “Chicken Little” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”. Both stories taught something about credibility. I explained that for tonight’s scripture, rather than focusing on a literal interpretation, I wanted them to read it and ask themselves, “How does this apply to me?”

I knew without that introduction the conversation would go off on a rabbit trail; and it did from time to time but we still returned to the topic.

Luke 1:26-38

26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And having come in, the angel said to her, “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!”

29 But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. 30 Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. 33 And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”

34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”

35 And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. 37 For with God nothing will be impossible.”

38 Then Mary said, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.


Again I reminded them to look at the story from a perspective of, “How does this apply to me?”

We looked at what the angel said in in verse 28 – though the guys really, really wanted to talk about verse 35. These guys are surrounded with messages that tell them they are worthless and beyond hope. But God says, “I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine.” (Is. 43:1b)

In verse 29, “29 But when she saw him, she was troubled at his saying, and considered what manner of greeting this was. ”

She wasn’t troubled by the messenger, she was troubled by what he was saying. In the same way many of these guys struggle with receiving the message that God loves them, they are of value, and that forgiveness is available.



We looked at verses 31-33. Christians sometimes talk about Christ alive in us. What does it mean to have Jesus dwell in us? One of the guys talked about how it has changed his life. Even in the midst of where he is and what is going on, God has given him a sense of peace, and hope for the future.

We discussed verses 34-37. Mary was ill-equipped to the task, but it was possible through the Holy Spirit. We are ill-equipped to the task and need the spirit as well.

At this point one of the guys wanted to know more. In his case his drug use has led to completely out of control behavior that ultimately gets him arrested. When he gets released he still goes back to his addictions even though he knows it won’t end well. He has tried hard on his own, but without success. Some of the guys talked about how having God gives them the courage to go though treatment, to attend AA or NA, and to do the steps needed to find their way back to sobriety.

We also talked about how some changes take time. Many of the guys have seen wives or girlfriends go through pregnancy. Eventually even the way the woman walks changes as a result of the child growing within her. So too our own walk changes.

I told the story of Louis that Father Greg Boyle of Homeboy Industries shared a few days ago.

Here is a six minute video of Father Greg. At 1:20 he tells the story of Louie.


The annunciation — I have called you by name

The incarnation — Christ alive in us