OUR PARISH BEHIND BARS
I have known it for a long time. I have seen it for a long time. In other places I didn't think much about it. I gave it only limited attention. It was a minor detail. Now this almost makes me want to laugh.
There are a lot of keys at Rikers. There is nothing surprising about that. Here, there is plenty of use for keys!
In every building, the control room is the brain and the eyes of the prison. The warning lights, the telephones, the buttons, the TV screens -- everything that goes on in the blocks and corridors winds up or is reflected here.
Surrounded by very thick windows, proof against anything, here is the impregnable center that sees everything, commands everything, the real frontier between "inside" Rikers and "outside." So all the keys of the prison are stored here. Positioned and tagged on huge panels, they are passed to those who have the right to use them through a kind of revolving box embedded in the wall. The delivery, of course, is closely controlled. The person who asks for a key, the place, everything is identified, placed on file. Security, good order and efficiency demand it.
Thus every door, in order to be activated electrically, has its lock and key. These keys are usually very large, unique, certainly impossible to find in a lock shop. They are noisy; they invade your thoughts. Sometimes they hang in clusters from a CO's belt. The keys are the most widespread, the most evident, the most haunting image before one's eyes when one is in prison.
But I am heading toward the HDM building and to the chapel inside it. I love that chapel, because little by little it has become for me, because of all that I have seen and experienced there, one of the sacred places in New York.
Above the altar there is an ordinary tabernacle, like those everywhere. At each Mass I put the ciborium. with the reserved eucharistic species in it. Here is the saving presence offered to us, the radiant point, the impulse and the ferment, the leaven, before which every prayer can come to rest, every burden be laid down, every misery be accepted. Here is the bread of life.
But what I love about the tabernacle in the chapel of the HDM at Rikers, in this place that is so full of barriers, of contrived obstacles that challenge and defy solution, is that the door which shelters the ciborium, that very visible door, has nothing to hold it shut.
The only door in the whole building that has no key is here, at the center. And not even the most punctilious people here take exception to it. "My ways are not your ways."
Taking our starting point from this place of blazing life, which is the Body of Christ "given up for us," I now need to describe that which gathers around him, that which finds its life and direction from him within these walls. I need to describe the physical surroundings and the human beings who find in and through him their strength and direction, here, in prison. I must expand this heart of the church and offer it to all those who search for it and form it. The people, the places and the things here are witnesses of the church, its poverty, and its richness, its suffering and its glory. Our church is a church of sinners. Our church is a church of saints. . . .
At Rikers there is, practically speaking, only one institution with a special and defined place for each religious group: the HDM. In the other buildings, C 95 for example, all the confessions and denominations have to take turns using the same room, one service following another. That places a severe limit on the sense of taking solid possession of a sacred space for a community of believers. No doubt every chaplain here would have a lot to say about that imposed cheapening of meaning, that
blurring of distinctions, the necessity to begin from nothing each time and to carry everything with us.
As everywhere in the Christian world, the chapel is the privileged place of assembly, the place where the Lord is present. Here is our first obligation, if we are sent here for the sake of a community, a church. This is true for these spiritual reasons and also, frankly, for simple reasons of health. In a world of bars and of unhappiness, there is nothing more depressing than not to have one simple place, one corner of beauty where an experience can be transformed or celebrated. . . . So this house of God, this worshipful place at the very center of Rikers, is the anti-prison, the refuge, the sanctuary, the House of the People, where human laws can suddenly become very fragile and superficial, where they can even dissolve, where, finally, everything happens because we are all awaited and desired.
FREE ME LORD
In the choir of the chapel this sharp, naive painting of the head of a prisoner between two fists painfully clutching thick bars, with two tears rolling down his hollow cheeks, grabs the attention of visitors as soon as they walk in. The portrait was done by a well-known inmate of Rikers, Baptista, a passionate and talented painter. Baptista was one of the main restorers of this chapel. At the back, on a series of large panels, he painted a skilled and splendid reproduction of the creation of the human being in the Sistine Chapel. On another wall he did another large copy of the expressive head of Christ by Rembrandt. Many people, both visitors and prisoners, who come here for the first time, ask questions about Baptista. Such gifts are noticed, even at Rikers.
Paintings, carpet, an altar bearing an 18th century crucifix found in a church and restored by the prisoners; all these are joined by a single statue. This sober, peaceful image of the Virgin of the Poor from Banneux, Belgium, was sent as a special gift expressing the solidarity of distant friends. There is a set of
stations of the cross in carved wood. The floor is impeccably waxed, and the green plants never lack for volunteers to care for and water them. "The chapel is a place that's lived-in," says Ed, a Puerto Rican prisoner. He adds: "I have just two peaceful times in this prison: when I am asleep and when I come here. I know some people who would come here a lot oftener if they could" . . . .
How do I live the eucharist? How do I celebrate the eucharist? Times have changed since I was ordained in 1961, and modes of expression have also changed. But it is still the Mass, the Pascha, the Christ. Now, during the week, I celebrate alone or, more often, with my sisters and brothers. . . .
Though every Mass has its identical weight of richness and gift, independent of the place in which it is celebrated, and though the Body of Christ is made to be realized everywhere, the one I celebrate on Sundays takes place in a prison. There, Mass takes up the whole morning. I celebrate three times in three different places. I would say that Sunday is my most difficult day, the one that exhausts me the most . . .
Since the purpose is to celebrate with prisoners, all of whom are wounded or scarred people, I have an absolute need to prepare ahead of time. I find time for it during the week. I meet with a Jesuit friend, who is a kind of beggar for God in the New York street world, and a sister who also works at the prison. Together we take up the Mass texts and "chew" them thoroughly. We seek to be schooled by the gospel . . . .
THE BREVIARY OF THE POOR
But how can we distinguish the expression of a simple and sincere faith from some kind of vague and omnipresent religiosity in prison? Religion is very much in demand here. It has set up shop in a good location. It has public recognition. Pious pictures are framed in gold or silver paper. Among the profane tattoos there are little crosses, and medals hang on chains over the T-shirts. Thousands of rosaries have been distributed and are still being given out. They come from everywhere: from nursing homes, from the sick, from concerned friends, from people unknown and far away.
Why are there so many rosaries here? Perhaps it is a way for
the prisoners to recover the image of their mothers, their wives or even their girlfriends. The rosary, like the medals, little crosses and pictures, all the business of religious knickknacks that, in other places, would seem rather undigested and forced, is for them, here in this gigantic, anonymous prison, a sign of recognition and of ownership, and a means of affirmation.
The rosary is the breviary of the poor. Its simplicity, its profundity, its tradition are rooted in faith that the holy Virgin will help us find and live with Jesus; it is a powerful aid to breathing in here. How many times have I been surprised by that truth in this or that person! Of course it is often necessary to explain, to make distinctions, to correct and to purify their belief, to help them get away from magic and empty gestures. Some say: "If I weren't here, I wouldn't pray." Or they say: "Being in prison is what has forced me to pray." . .
THE SCHOOL OF FAITH
Why start off by rejecting such a point of departure? Why be too quick to doubt the sincerity of a movement of faith? Our births are all hidden. Starting out on the road is already a big thing. A lot of those here ask for times for adoration, for periods of silence. Collective silence in the presence of God has a completely different dimension than the "normal" silence each prisoner must deal with in his cell. I have participated many times in a very powerful experience of prayer. In the middle of the silence or the terrible noise in this prison a collective silence is the most beautiful kind of prayer. It brings to mind the peace of which Isaiah speaks (Is 11:6-9)
Besides the Mass, individual or community prayer and study courses on the Bible play a major role in the structuring of this prison parish. As with every other religious activity, a selection is quickly made between those who are looking for a momentary diversion -- they give up quickly -- and those who come seeking an opportunity for catechesis. I prefer to offer something solid in these classes. I cannot permit myself any kind of detached, academic study, much less lofty sessions and carefully elaborated lessons. But it is easy to choose between the peripheral and the essential: the gospels, especially Matthew and John, the beatitudes, the Our Father, the book of Job, the psalms, and so on. . . .
MAKING A RETREAT
The retreats are the most powerful times for our Christian community. Together with Sister Simone and the other sisters in her house, we are very attached to these retreats, for each is special, a very moving time, preceded by preparations that are more and more absorbing as the day gets closer. The magnitude of the retreats, the investment of all kinds of energy they demand, require that we cannot allow ourselves this "adventure" more than about once every three months. This rhythm is our maximum. I have no hesitation in placing a high value on these moments, these days of transformation, even when we are doing them for the 30th time. Within the whole official system, which legally and by definition is dry, rigid, gray and cold but not at all opposed, since it accepts this quite willingly -- these are the notes of color and grace breaking through all systems and conventions, the breath of air for everyone, the collective discovery of something better and something more.
This retreat is religious; it takes place in a group; and it happens in a prison. These three related elements indicate the reason why we cling so strongly to it. A church behind bars, an approach to the gospel that is not merely individual but communal, an interior refusal of degradation like a sudden outbreak of one's whole being, undertaking a journey with others -- all this attracts us. If I dared, I would say that we have all that is needed to form a "gang." For here, as everywhere, the individual is in trouble. Groups form very quickly on all sides, one against the others, often stereotyped, seeking extreme expressions. Groups set the tone, "make the law," with customary rules, sanctions, peer pressure -- a subterranean world completely outside official conventions and forms of justice, born of confinement and proximity.These groups achieve more than survival. Within the given limits, they have the power they seize for themselves. So, in prison, a gang of Christians coming out of their cages has a weight that I am sure very few, on the outside, would recognize. There is a light here that has nothing to do with any rule or regulation of a human system.
Our Bible circles are shaped by the inner circle, the base group, and by patient preparation. Only those prisoners who are willing to put themselves at risk, week after week, to be involved, to wait in the church to see who will be placed on the list for the retreat, are here. That is why these retreats are always a gathering, a place of charged and privileged encounter. That is also the reason why we say no to many others -- and there are always some who would simply like to spend the day, with completely different motivation.
Need I say that we are very wide awake at such times? For in prison, too, one has those strange temptations to "do good;" that is, to get lost in the psychology of compassion. We do not envision anything like perfection or elitism. Jesus has come, all too clearly, for the children, the broken and the lost. But because all of this requires a choice, a certain shape and form, without any prejudgment of the variety of landscapes and situations in which the gifts of heaven are bestowed, and also without seeing ourselves as the appointed dispensers of those gifts, we have learned not to accept any participants for this very different journey other than those who have chosen this way.
The retreats are usually held in the institution's visiting room, since the inmates are allowed to have up to three members of their family with them. We saw very quickly how beneficial it could be for isolated men, not simply to meet one another in a family context, but also to accompany one another, with their families, into a shared spiritual life. Here, for example, is Bernie, seated between his father and mother, whose marriage broke up a long time ago, and who have found each other again in the company of their son, reconciled and happy.
The success of the retreats depends on their preparation: a questionnaire on the chosen theme is given out in advance to each participant. At 7 A.M. the invited guests from outside are waiting at the entrance to the bridge to Rikers. They are
taken by a special bus to the room where the retreat will be held. Volunteers and religious sisters keep the children busy writing, drawing and playing. We take the midday meal together. There are snacks and desserts; Mass is celebrated. Everything in our heads is very far removed from the prison. Or, to put it another way, this is a day when everything is different.
But let me illustrate by an example:
On this particular morning, counting the volunteers, the prisoners --all dressed in very clean, dark blue dungarees-- and some of their families, we are exactly 204 persons gathered in the visiting room of the prison. The room is none too large, or rather, this number of people completely fills it. We have decorated the room with beautiful posters and bright colors. On one side is a buffet with coffee, pastry, and soda. The chairs are arranged in a semi-circle. There is a microphone at the center.
All of this is already completely out of the ordinary and helps to establish the ambience, to change the atmosphere. Little details weigh heavily here, far from the ponderous bars and gates. Of course, there are COs here, too. But they also enter into the ambience or respect it; they keep discreetly quiet throughout the day.
There is Juan, a new deacon and a longtime volunteer, so
capable and so valuable with his guitar. He helps organize things and leads the singing, for these days are never without songs and chants of praise.
There, too, is Bernadette, a Franciscan sister who, after we have greeted each one, takes a few minutes to introduce the day's program. The chosen theme is forgiveness. Bernadette concludes by posing three questions to be discussed in small groups:
- Is it impossible to forgive others if one has not already been pardoned oneself?
- Have you had the experience of not being forgiven by others? If so, what did that do to you?
- Have you had the experience of having forgiveness refused -- of wanting to forgive someone, but your pardon not being accepted? How did you react to that?
We divide into about a dozen groups, spread around the room, where we reflect on these questions, communicating in English and Spanish. We need bilingual volunteers, since many of the Hispanics do not speak any English. I will simply note some of the reactions among those I have heard. In their dryness, they are the product, the precious earth around which the dialogue turns.
- "Maybe God forgives, but society doesn't."
- "How can you forgive when all you get are blows? In prison it's a sign of weakness to forgive, or to do anything good. It's more acceptable to show your teeth, to make people afraid."
- A sister says: "Peace follows forgiving. You feel completely different." "But sister, you don't live in a cell the way we do. You can't know what it's like!"
- "I asked in front of witnesses to be able to confess in the presence of my wife. That way, my wife saw that my repentance was serious, because I wanted it to be public."
- "Not forgiving yourself is being like Judas. It kills you!"
- "I can forgive myself, but my family doesn't want to hear anything about forgiving me."
- "It may be easy to forgive, but it sure is hard to forget."
Each group has a chance to speak, each one choosing its own style and respecting pace, rhythm and even silence as a means of expression. We are so unaccustomed to these things here! But little by little, gently, quietly, something is born within the room. One by one, starting from the point of view where they find themselves, the participants find that they are led toward a quality that I think is preserved only in children: the ability to enter into a mystery, to see beyond the immediate. "I had to come to prison to see that," one of them says. "This is the first time I have felt safe here," says another.
Normally we bring together the results of all the group discussions. They are summarized and reflected on by all those present. But this time a visit from the warden, the head of the prison, does not allow for it. They will have to wait until later, because he has chosen to spend some time with us, to tell us how much he appreciates what is happening here within his institution on this retreat day. He even hopes that there will be more of them, and wants to help bring it about, because he sees that what is touched on here will enter deeply into many lives. There is a dialogue, conducted in terms of respect and dignity;
there is applause. "At least, on a day like this, you feel like a normal human being." "Just imagine, you can even begin to look at the warden as a friend!"
A DIALOGUE WITH AN ADW
These are echoes of powerful moments that will leave their mark. And the children, singing "We Are the World" at the tops of their voices and beautifully off key before an audience that is totally absorbed and attentive, express the beauty of communion and of a world that has been recaptured. There will be a meal taken in freedom, a reunion. At Mass there will be singing, silence, reflection. There are smiles, tears and a certainty that is completely new and unhoped for, that remains to comfort us as we depart. For the hour of parting comes all too quickly. The prisoners leave first, in one direction, and then the volunteers and the families, in the other direction. . . . they have had today; they have called forth a discovery and nurtured a step forward. . .
"In my work, three things are necessary. I call them the three P's.
- "(1) Paper, because you have to put everything down on paper; you have to make reports.
- "(2) Patience, because the obstacles here are multiplied, compared with free society. Life here is slowed down, and the prison is huge.
- "(3) Prayer, to keep my sanity. Without it, you can't survive."
This ADW [Assistant Deputy Warden] is a friend of mine. He has had years of experience at Rikers and doesn't mind stopping to talk. He knows what is going on and lets the chips fall where they may, even on the COs. I agree fully with him about his "three P's." But in applying the word patience to the prisoners also, without forgetting their victims, I remember that "time is all we have here, it's all that's left to us." There is another difference. It regards the word paper, with respect to the chaplains' ministry. It is the conviction that spiritual things cannot easily be reported, especially not on official forms. Between a paper and a reality, there is all the difference between life and death. The gifts of God cannot be measured in terms of human success. We need completely different criteria to discern them.
In short, for myself, and without any condescending, I might say that I know a little bit about the world of the employees of the Department of Correction (DOC), and I can readily witness, like all of them, to the tense moments, the emptiness, and often the enormous responsibility that are their lot here. Having said that, I have no desire to enter into general controversies or to make those easy criticisms that are in vogue. I see the DOC as the pure and simple product of our present society with its diversity, its failures, its heroism, its moods and its tedium: it is the responsibility of us all. This is not meant to invite passivity or lack of interest. Moreover, enforcing law and order can never be limited to a mechanical abstraction, a matter of anticipated and completely codified actions. There is always the human factor, the thousand and one imponderables, fecund with richness or with internal disaster, with fidelity or abandonment. I understand the division that my friend, the ADW, experiences. For him, it does not extend to the point of "tolerating the intolerable;" it rejects evil. It starts from the Calvary of reality and seeks after Life.
"When I leave the prison," says a CO, "I don't take it home with me. I try to forget it. I don't talk about it any more after I leave the gate. I don't want the prison to have an effect on my children." Certainly, but balance is not effected simply through silence, a forcible burying of the irrational that can so easily surface in the prison. It needs an outlet. The CO who shouts at a frightened group in a corridor, "When I meet a human
being, I treat him like a human being. When I meet an animal, I treat it like an animal," has already passed beyond a certain point at which he, too, has become a victim. The higher part of him is suffering. He no longer realizes that he is drowning himself in the prison. What he is doing is destroying him.
Another says to me: "When you get involved with too many needs of insignificant people, you make monsters of them." He, too, has a hemorrhage of humanity within himself, if by "too many needs" he means to imply the refusal of simple human recognition. Punishing evil with evil has, on this earth, opened the door to a great many catastrophes. Fidelity and certitude, which by necessity are simple therapies of protection and encouragement, should not simply be identified in advance, but nourished and made vigorous. It is a matter of the dignity of each person, of the universal value in everyone, and for a Christian, it is a matter of seeing the face of Christ everywhere.
I have already said that at Rikers every building has its personality, its own character. There is nothing remarkable about that, since every institution is totally autonomous, within the limits of the common rules applicable to all. Thus it is the people, from the warden down to the last employee and even the prisoners, who make all the difference in producing a home spirit, made up of the contributions and deficiencies of all. It is a very sensitive terrain where reputation, atmosphere and a way of doing things are created, a terrain that is often very demanding physically, psychologically, spiritually -- with all kinds of victims. (A chaplain has said, "To work in a prison, you need an infinite capacity for disappointment.") But you also discover a family at all levels of this world and its hierarchy. You find people who are extremely rich in their hearts and their way of looking at things, in their humanity and way of being. Some of them have not received promotion, have not sought it -and do not want it, and are respected by everyone just as they are. They have experience and wisdom. They are the pillars of the place.
As a chaplain I have a certain number of activities that are normally expected and carried out as part of the job, but from time to time I also enter into a strong and effective cooperation with the authorities. How many times have 1, together with Sister Simone and others, received an invitation phrased in a variety
of ways: "We are interested in what you are trying to do. Proceed as seems best to you. You are in a tight spot, but it's your ball game." Without over-confidence, we welcome their trust and take it as something very serious and pregnant with consequences. To hear someone say to you, with a gracious openness, "Be the church you want to be with the people who are here," certainly triggers a good deal of far reaching reflection, leading up to this simple and difficult and inevitable point: This Christ you talk about, the one who wants to be behind these bars well, you are responsible for him. Show them what he's worth. They will take you at your word." As if the world all around, us spoke with the voice of God.
Let me conclude this point with the words of a prisoner that I have made my own: "When I get out, I want to send a lot of thank-you cards to the people from all over that I have met here at Rikers. I never said a word about it, but many times I have received a lot from them. They taught me a lot."