While I was rediscovering my sense of wonder (see yesterday’s post), I was also working in a hospital, directing a small chaplain’s department and pastoral education program. I began volunteering in the state women’s prison, only minutes from my house. There I led worship services for the women who spoke Spanish. Two times per month I was privileged to leave my house in the shadow of the Allegheny ridge, just under a tract of state forest, and drive to the prison.
Though I believed that I was an accomplished chaplain, I found that very little of what I had learned in my previous nine years of hospital ministry had prepared me for the culture of prison life, still less for my role as a chaplain in that culture. I learned how to pray with my eyes open, how to enforce the rules of the prison in worship without inadvertently starting a riot and how to provide structure rather than seeking consensus.
Photo Credit: Mark Grace
Walking into that prison was like descending into ocean depths. The atmosphere was crushing, sometimes, and this for one already involved in an occupation many people find demanding. Despite these adjustments, I treasured the time I spent with these women, many of whom managed to preserve the beauty of the spirit of worship de las de habla hispana amidst the rigors of a penal colony.
Early on the prison chaplain asked me to visit a Spanish-speaking prisoner who had been admitted to a local hospital. Maricela (not her real name) was suffering from a terminal disease and had been admitted to the hospital because she had developed an infection related to her underlying illness. I found her room with help from a nurse and went in to introduce myself. She was a small woman, young and fragile looking as she lay in her bed regarding me with eyes that had grown large in a shrinking frame.
Mari listened to my introduction patiently and agreed to speak with me. She treated me with the respect and deference she might accord a priest, though I explained whenever it seemed appropriate that I was a protestant minister.
“I’ve been a bad person,” she told me in that first conversation, in very much the same tone of voice my daughter might have used to introduce a subject she knew would not please me. An awkward beginning to the story of her journey to prison unfolded in that initial conversation.
Confession and forgiveness were themes much on her mind on that day and the days to come. Every now and then Mari would ask me whether I believed that Jesus might really forgive her of the things she had done. Behind her shame for what she had done lay a dazed concern and puzzlement at the forgetfulness that ruled her actions in those “bad” days.
As a lifelong Catholic, Mari was expecting me to hear her confession, to assign her penance and perhaps to offer absolution. As a lifelong Baptist, my instincts were all wrong to provide her with these things. Instead, I pointed her to Scripture, asked about her experience and prayed with her for assurance.
To this day I feel this blindness of mine to the realities of her religious world as a kind of bruise on my spirit. Never mind that I believe God ultimately used our conversation for her benefit. Mari drew me out of myself in much the same way that the nonhuman world was drawing me out of myself.
Like every other expression of beauty the world offers to us, Mari’s spiritual courage awakened in me both profound gratitude for the privilege of traveling with her and an intense longing to bring the very best of myself to our journey together.
About one week later, Mari was discharged from the hospital to the prison infirmary. It soon became apparent that the state had determined that Mari would serve out her sentence, even though it might mean that she would die in jail.
It proved to be a hot summer in Pennsylvania, made all the more uncomfortable because the infirmary had no air conditioning. Mari’s illness was not easy to endure under the best of circumstances, and the state women’s prison infirmary was far from the best of circumstances. The nurses agonized over their lack of resources to deal with Mari’s condition.
When I talked with the prison chaplain about Mari, I learned that she was loved and respected by many of the other inmates. She had faced her diagnosis with courage and had provided extraordinary spiritual leadership to her sisters in prison.
One night after work, I drove to the prison to see Mari. She was in pain, as much emotional as physical. She spoke of her family, how much she missed them and wished they could come to see her.
Family, Forgiveness, Compassion
“Why don’t they come?” she asked me over and over.
I felt as helpless as ever I had, sitting there next to her bed. I asked her to tell me stories about them, but she was not up to talking a great deal.
“I know I am not your family, Mari,” I finally said to her, “But I also know that you and I are brother and sister in Christ. I will do my best to stand in for your family.”
On my last visit, Mari was focused once again on whether I thought Jesus might have forgiven her. I reminded her of the weeks we had known one another, about all that had passed between us on this subject.
“Does this give you assurance, Mari?” I asked.
“I suppose. But I just want to hear you tell me. Do you think that Jesus forgives me all those bad things? Will he let me to go to heaven?”
I took her hand and told her that, as much as any person could know about the decisions of another person, with all the faith I possessed in God, I believed she was forgiven and that she would be with Christ in heaven.
She seemed to draw comfort from that statement. We talked a while longer and had prayer. I asked Christ to give Mari ease from pain and uncertainty, to enfold her in assurance in her times of doubt.
The road that led me back to my home wound between the thick blackness of ridges and valleys covered with tall hemlock, maple and birch trees. The peepers were so loud I could hear them through the rolled up windows of the car.
Halfway home I began to cry. Deep racking sobs drowned out the sounds of the small creatures outside. I tried to think of something to say to Jesus.
All that came were more tears, more weeping. I began to realize that my tears were the prayer I needed to pray, and so gave myself over to them. I am convinced that those tears were a kind of release for me and paradoxically, a confirmation of Mari’s release to God’s infinite compassion.
A few days later she died.
Well, I should stop making predictions about the length of these multi part essays, because I have changed my mind. Next Tuesday I intend to unpack these stories just a little in order to talk about why they are so important to my understanding of myself as an evangelical.
In the meantime, I am interested in the experiences that have shaped your spiritual life. Share them with the rest of us by leaving a comment below.