Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island:
A Chaplain's Search for God
Page 13 of 13 NYCHS excerpts presentation pages.

. . . A civilization where the preaching of sin has replaced that of pardon, where a narrow juridical notion of the defense of society outwardly coincides with a pitiless practice of competition and profit -- such a civilization without generosity is the territory not only of unreal guilt but of a lack of exculpation. --- Paul Ricoeur


If you look at a detailed map of New York, on which the street numbers are given and monuments identified, Rikers Island in the East River with its more than 13,000 inhabitants is simply a white space without any detail. A parish in these parts has no visibility; it does not exist in the official structures of the archdiocese, even though the approval of the chancery is required for the appointment of Roman Catholic chaplains. Every year the seminarians come to Rikers, meeting with prisoners once a week and thus beginning to make contact with them. Their time is too much taken up by other things for them to be able to join in our celebrations. They are in training here. Their presence is marginal but undoubtedly not without its interest for future pastors. This parish is no longer required to keep any registers. For example, it suffices if baptisms are registered at a neighboring parish on the outside. I have already done that a number of times. And there is one pleasant feature here: no collections.

Despite the deficiencies and impossibilities, to the extent that one gets close to the place, one quickly sees that its ecclesial character is incontestable. What difference does a place in itself make when we find here men and women who live, believe, suffer and pray every day? Indifference or a superficial glance at the whole is not adequate. There is too much human reality at Rikers for the chaplaincy to be merely a job, a task like any other within an administration that is often rigid and abstract, as if it were condemned to impose itself on others: "Prisons have always existed and will always exist. . . . You just have to put up with it. . . . Whether you like it or not, prisons are a business like any other. You can make a career here and even build a future." But without getting involved in the commentaries of sociologists, legal experts or even the ordinary citizens of New York, let me say that it is the church at Rikers that interests me, the flesh and blood people I meet every day and who, little by little, have become my theological locus, a land of the gospel, a land of surprises mediated by all its histories, its faces and voices. . . .

In the New Testament and the church's tradition, a ministry to prisoners has always been recognized and encouraged. Since the days of Jesus there has been a solidarity in principle between Christians and every victim of human sin, whether voluntary or involuntary. "Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them" (Heb 13:3).

There has never been, in the tradition, any trace of embarrassment regarding the attitude one ought to take toward prisoners, as if there were some kind of choice to be made between punishing and forgiving, or as if this ministry risked interfering too much with a judgment already given.

2 Rikers Island
chapel buildings.

The top of each of the 17 web pages with text excerpts from Fr. Raphael's book features a detail from a 1948 aerial photo of Rikers showing the Catholic Chapel of the Sacred Heart and rectory (above) near the penitentiary, later known as HDM and now JATC.

A larger detail (above) from the same 1948 aerial photo shows two chapels, the one on left being the Protestant Mission House and Chapel. That building no longer exists.

A late 1950s winter photo also shows both chapels, the Protestant one on the left.

The photo above and sections of it shown below are of the Protestant Mission House and Chapel, circa 1950s.

Though their chapels were on opposite sides of Rikers' main road, the island's resident chaplains in the 1950s and 1960s, Rev. Dr. E. Frederick Proelss, the Protestant chaplain, left, and Fathers Stanley and Glaser, the Catholic chaplains, were close colleagues and good friends, traveling the same pathway of service together

This Station of the Cross, saved from the Protestant chapel before it closed, has been generously presented to the New York Correction History Society by the Episcopalian minister's daughter, Delphine. She grew up on Rikers with her sister and brother as members of Rev. Dr. Proelss' family living in the home attached to the chapel. She believes the Station of the Cross was carved and painted by an inmate.

On Dec. 7th, 2001, then NYC Correction Commissioner William J. Fraser presided at ribbon cutting ceremonies that dedicated and formally opened the remodeled former Catholic chapel building (color photo above) for its new correctional command use.

For more on the two chapel buildings, from the era of resident Rikers chaplains, read
Finding the 'Lost Chapel' of Rikers Island
on this web site.

photo images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

Little by little, in the course of history, something happened as the church realized that it was not merely responsible for ministry to prisoners, but was involved in the organization of prisons themselves, and in their reform and betterment.

It is not possible here to go into the details of this history, its evolution, or the debates that are still going on. Christians who serve in prisons are involved in them in every way, in the name of what their faith demands of them. Even if the Bible says nothing about the purpose of prisons, there are principles that remain as beacons for our conduct and the way we view them. Several things are certain:

  1. A ministry to prisoners, if it is Christian, is not just a gratuitous and inoffensive gesture simply to be tolerated. It is demanded by Jesus: "I was in prison and you came to visit me." [Matthew 25:36] It is found at the beginning of the church's apostolate. This ministry is not specialized; it is nothing exceptional. It is only one ministry among others. Still, in our day it is neither very common nor widespread. A hospital has a much better chance of finding a chaplain.
  2. Prisons are not the only places where we can find dehumanization or absence of liberty. An unemployed person, an undocumented alien, a vagrant, a prostitute -- all are victims in differing degrees, in one way or another, of pernicious circumstances that result from human sin. My experience at Rikers from the very earliest days showed me this quite clearly. People are alike, and I could meet on the street the whole complex of people I see here. I believe that I received that perception as a shock and an encouragement: a shock because of the human vulnerability and fragility (someone asked a prisoner: "Why are you in prison?" and the prisoner answered, echoing Thoreau, "Why aren't you?"); encouragement because of the possibility of contact and the promise of a life that is never completely extinguished.
  3. This ministry has a dimension proper to itself. How can one accept the liberty for captives promised by Christ when one is in prison? What chaplain has not had to ask himself or herself that question?

    Proclaiming liberty for captives means announcing a situation in which there are no more prisons. But is that something that is already accomplished or will it only come later? As with the reign of God, we need to answer: "It is here and not yet here." It is here in those transparent moments, for example, in certain meetings, celebrations, retreats, and events when, if the group seems to be something more than the individuals who make it up, one sees, realizes, understands the significance of the words repentance, conversion, communion. Even if it is always necessary to make a discernment between instinctive impulses, passing emotions, and a work of the Spirit that creates a rebirth of the brothers and sisters in and through their crosses and their joys, these blessed moments are flashing instants in which there is no more prison. On such a day we travel far, and the unthinkable becomes realistic: a society without prisons.

    The liberty for captives is not yet here when there is no other possible alternative for criminals except prison. . . .

There are living and explosive forces here, full of question marks for a society that is too simplistic. . . . In a situation of dereliction, malice and intense anger, only the gospel is able to disarm, to restore and to make possible a new dawn. The story of John the Baptist in prison, of the criminal on the cross alongside Jesus, the original words of Christ and of all the witnesses who followed him pierce the walls and bars of Rikers. Here is the fragility of an elementary and vague unbelief that does not know where or to whom to turn. Here is the confused and cringing sound of faith finding whatever gestures it can, reaching out for relationship and for simplicity, and seeking in darkness and the desert for living words. "My mother always said to me: 'You are going to end up killing me!' Now here I am in prison, and yesterday she died. She died because of me! Please help me!" (These were the words of an inmate to the community during Mass. ) A wise person has said: "Something is lacking in anyone who has never known unhappiness, illness or prison" . . .

I have prayed in C-95 with a man, still young, who had killed his mother. It was a crazy, horrible crime. He was very pale and looked like a lost man, crushed by the misery that had fallen upon him. He complained of constant headache and said he had nothing left. Today he left Rikers; he went to an upstate prison to serve his sentence. I do not know whether he has kept his faith and spiritual life, but when I was face to face with him, I knew by his attention and the quality of what he shared with me that we were in what believers call the invisible kingdom. . . .

But aren't there good reasons to be skeptical? moments when the confessions sound false or penitence is only a pretence? The test, as in everything, is endurance. When you are building on rock, you have to begin very small.

In these conversations there are not only falling tears or bleeding hearts. There is often also an unconscious desire to equate human justice with God's justice. "Because I am being punished by human beings, I am being punished by God; God has put me in here for some reason." And here again I have to help them understand that people can punish, but God can forgive, and that God knows that I have sinned even if people wipe it from the record. Human justice and God's justice don't necessarily overlap. I repeat this to them over and over again. . . ..

Now I come to the heart of my theological reflections on prisons. I have already touched on it, but I want to speak of it in a more concise and developed way, because it is only the lack of it that causes the death of everyone at Rikers or elsewhere. I am speaking of forgiveness. Even the Christian who is "just," who is no one special, is first of all a forgiven sinner. Forgiveness is my passion. After 28 years of priesthood, what I still value most, what I have really discovered here, is forgiveness. From the depth of my soul and conscience, I would say that it is this that brings me to the center of what the church entrusted to me in 1961. For me, as for the majority of people, I am sure that it is both the place where the enemy is vanquished and the locus of the greatest revelation of God.. . . ..

If there were no pardon for the sinner or hope for a new future, I would have left Rikers long ago. What kind of hope is there in prison? When a person hits bottom, weeps, has lost everything, searches in the dark, how can we not think of forgiveness? As long as there is life and breath, I am infinitely certain that a person can change, even in prison. Sin is a hindrance to liberty, a hindrance to love, an open wound, a sickness to be given to God.

The boy whose two brothers had been violently killed, and whose other two brothers are in prison like him, lives, prays and hopes. It was he who said to me: "I have learned my lesson. I want to get out -- and this time, with God."

The AIDS patients in the hospital have a lot to think about. Some of them are exhausted and have lost all their strength. Their neighbors, companions in misfortune, help them as best they can. "We are crutches for each other," says one of them.

If a human being does not know that he or she is forgiven and loved by God, if hope is cut off, that person is like a walking corpse, a breathing death. And that is the worst kind of death. . . .


All those who imagine they are Christians, but don't work to polish the dignity that is in human beings, to dissipate their ignorance, to break their egoism through an example of disinterestedness, to realize within human society that perfect equality which is the practical recognition of the value of the human person - -all such people mistake the shadow for the substance and deceive themselves. --- Jean Jaures


. . . . Before his visit to the United States in September 1987, our Christian community at Rikers had written to Pope John Paul II. This came about entirely through the initiative of the inmates themselves. It was worth seeing -- the care that was taken, the discussions involved in composing that letter full of respect and hope, reaching out to a living center in a society that is visible, but so often immobile. It was a beautiful letter. (It made me think of Augustine's expression: "There is a sign by which one may know whether a man or woman possesses the Holy Spirit. It is that he or she loves the church.") Some of the inmates even wrote to the upstate prisons to ask for signatures. They came by the hundreds. Some time later we received a written message of thanks through the archdiocese. (One inmate said to me, "A letter is a flower in the desert." Then he added, "A visit is a fountain.") . . . .

Origins of Abraham House where author Fr. Raphael is spiritual director.

Above: Logo sketch from Abraham House newsletter.

Below: Images and text excerpts from Fall/Winter 2002 newsletter.

This man and his friends had the idea for Abraham House

Above: The place where the idea took root: The Rikers chapel, decorated by prisoners, was the spot where Wash, Sr. Simone and the other founders began to dream.

James Washington was a correction officer at the Rikers Island prison 23 years ago when he first knew Sr. Simone and Fr. Peter.

He had been raised in South Carolina and had taken part in the dangerous civil rights marches organized by the Rev. Martin Luther King.

"Wash" brought extraordinary humanity to the worst Rikers cellblocks. . . .

He and two co-workers, Willie Sutton and Robert Jones, had a dream, like King, and it was motivated by the same concern for justice.

They wanted to give poor people a chance, and they recognized what had landed some inmates in prison was not always their fault.

Twice a week these Rikers officers began brain-storming with Fr. Peter and Sr. Simone about setting up a novel rehabilitation program, the one that ultimately became Abraham House.

Soon the prison warden noticed the Catholic chapel was being painted more and more frequently.

Wash brought his crew of prison painters to the chapel often so that discussions could continue. And his insistence and encouragement played a significant role in Abraham House becoming a reality and moving to the Bronx.

Indeed, he helped us load the U-Haul that May morning in Brooklyn and when the Bishop who was driving our van (Bishop Andre du Puy) became lost in the South Bronx streets, Wash took over. Mott Haven was familiar to him . . . .

He and his wife Maxine spent the first years of their marriage in a ground-floor apartment in the projects across the street from the brownstone that would become Abraham House. . . .

Wash is now a cancer patient, in and out of the hospital.

He still is dreaming on our behalf, and attentive to the work being done at AH.

Abraham House is located at 342 Willis Avenue in the South Bronx.

Reflecting on the Past... Considering the Future
by Fr. Peter Raphael

A new chaplain in a prison is on probation; it takes time -- a lot of it -- to be accepted, both by the officers and the incarcerated.

The retreats that we organized for prisoners at Rikers Island in the 1980s were a beginning.

These were precious days, heavy with meaning. The staff noticed the change they effected. . . .

Even the Commissioner of the Department of Correction became convinced that following a retreat, tensions in the cellblocks eased for a period of time.

Christmas 1989 -- 10 years after my first Mass in the prison -- was another turning point.

Some 250 inmates filled the chapel that night, celebrating the feast in prayer and song. In prison you rarely have a full church. The staff, with good reason, does not permit large groups to gather.

But this night for two hours the men were allowed to live as normal people. The guards knew there was no problem; their presence did not break the atmosphere of peace, hope and friendship. It was easy to love that moment, witnessing a cold, concrete place filled with warmth and light. The prison disappeared.

What had gone on before that in our years at Rikers was simply an apprenticeship. The Holy Spirit was just winking.

We were on a road and could not go back, determined to find a functional place of rendezvous for both prisoners on release and their families.

Abraham House and its programs would be the outcome.

Friends in the Department of Correction brought a reservoir of wisdom to our search.

. . . it was they who set in place the first stones to build this house and grounded our plans in reality.

We knocked on doors, pursued leads, visited foundations, vacant rectories and politicians, and were repulsed more places than I can recall.

I even called, without an appointment, on Cardinal O’Connor. His housekeeper was reluctant to let me in, but the Cardinal listened to my dream.

"No one has talked to me before about this," he said. "Let me study this."

In prison you develop an infinite capacity to be disappointed . . . You need armor to fight off the negativity and cynicism. . . .

But by February 1997 Cardinal O’Connor was visiting a functioning Abraham House, and that experience was for him an awakening that made him passionate in calling for the establishment of more Abraham Houses.

We encourage others concerned with criminal justice to make that initiative in their own communities, and indeed, dozens of people come to study our program with this in mind.

But even as we plan to expand our facility, we intend to hold fast to being a family place. Our staff is convinced that only in this way can we change people and be a place of hope. Only this way can we be effective. Our roots are here in Mott Haven.

The way I see it, the Lord is the architect of Abraham House and we are handymen.

[Fr. Raphael]


The chaplains at Rikers Island frequently are asked to find relatives and deliver messages such as the one that forms the title of this article. This message was from a prisoner who died of cancer soon after.

Sr. Amy Henry of Abraham House goes to extraordinary lengths to fulfill these requests.

She catches a 5:15 bus most mornings for her 90-minute commute to the Rikers prison, rarely returning before dark.

And she uses any free time crisscrossing the city to search out or care for inmates' families.

"They move, are illiterate, have no phones and lose touch," she says

. . . . Re-establishing family contact, no matter how tenuous, nearly always improves the inmates’ short- and long-term situation.

In New York . . . budget cutbacks are causing noticeable changes. Sr. Amy explains, "I have men who are dying . . . their families fight for them . . . You must make a lot of noise to break through the inaction and rudeness. . . ."

"I know one mother who is a tiger and I say, ‘Good.’ She is getting what her son needs."

"Reduction in the number of guards makes ministry of even the simplest sort difficult. For a chaplain to visit every tier and each dorm weekly takes persistence . . . we never needed before.

"It does not matter whether the inmates are Muslims or Christians or have no faith at all. They may ask for a card to send to a dying sister or to a child.

"Sometimes they want me to make a phone call for them. They ask very little."

With that, Sr. Amy is out the door . . . . Each month for 22 years she has visited the wife of a prisoner.

The woman was shot in the spine and is a paraplegic in a Roosevelt Island hospital. The man himself died of a heart attack several years ago . . . .

Sr. Amy Henry comes from France and is a Little Sister of the Gospel, a small European order of just 70 nuns. Others include Sr. Simone and Sr. Rita Claus, the Abraham House nurse and supervisor of our Food Pantry.

Abraham House
images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

I think of my bishop every day, when I pray for him at Mass. For, without ignoring the person in charge of the Department of Correction, it is the bishop who is my superior, who can call me on the carpet and ask me to report in detail. I think of him when I go to Rikers, when I see and try to understand, when I listen and try to respond. Or, more simply, I see and hear with him. It is an urgent need among all the others -- and without doubting the many forms of the church's care that are expressed within an archdiocese, I need to keep my home base, to retain the character of an envoy. Those are the channels in which the vital fluid runs and through which it touches so many of the wounded in this place.

So it is with my bishop that I look at the numbers and the realities that impose themselves here. For example, 105,000 men and women entered Rikers in 1987. Some of them are still here. For most, these will be the most active and daring years of their lives, the years most fraught with consequences. They will spend those years in this abandoned society, in a ferocious and directionless violence, a majority of them black, drawn from all types of minorities, all of them poor. On occasion one sees the profound wounds of racism in the midst of so many other hemorrhaging sores. What group, what "parish" outside prison has such a potential for explosion, such a thirst for answers, such a groping toward an impossible light, such need for the attentive, living, loving eyes of our church turned toward its needs?

. . . . there is a convent of cloistered nuns in Europe who pray every Monday with those who are praying at Rikers. They receive The Link, a newsletter from our Christian community, with items in English and Spanish.They write to us regularly, and they in turn receive letters from Rikers.

Certainly a solidarity in prayer and friendship exists, and it is a comfort to us. We solicit these prayers everywhere: monasteries, retreat houses, families, friends, groups of young people and those not so young, those we know about and, most often, those who remain discreet and unknown. For example, a group of Belgians of all ages, who include among themselves blind and handicapped people, took the trouble to make their solidarity with us the theme of their Christmas preparation. There is also a woman, a volunteer prison visitor, who told me that before entering the prison walls she often had to pray a lot: "I couldn't come here otherwise," she added. Or I think of another woman who was asked: "But doesn't it bother you, going into prisons? Aren't you afraid in there?" She answered: "No, not at all. I am not afraid of anything but sin" . . . .

In cooperation with the Office of Criminal Justice Ministries of the archdiocese and the Sisters of the Gospel, we very often make the plunge into another world, a world that is "outside" but so frequently is horribly marked by what goes on "inside" the walls of a prison. I am speaking now of the families, those who are affected first of all by what is happening far away from them. They are so distant in their powerlessness, so close in their desire: the grandmothers who have to take care of the babies, the spouses or common-law wives who cannot manage in material terms, the children who play at calling each other daddy or who call the telephone daddy because that is all they see or know of their father. .

"Here, upstate," a prisoner who has been there for six years said to me, "we can't talk to each other about anything but prison stuff, things we can all see. It's impossible to talk about outside, about what is going on in our families. Who cares? Nobody would listen."

Another man has been there 15 years. We have known each other for eight. He has maintained a lot of energy, but his life is no longer the same. His wife couldn't bear his absence; she has a boyfriend now. He has a wonderful son, partly brought up by his grandmother. This friend of mine says that he feels well in the prison, even to the point that he no longer looks forward to getting out. His philosophy now is to abstract himself from everything and practice emptiness, like a Buddhist.

"If you want to, you can learn a lot in this prison; there are some good programs here. But it is also a very efficient school for crime."

"My wife came for the weekend for a 'trailer visit.' During that time my 28-year-old son, who is a drug addict and lives in New York, took the opportunity to sell everything he could find in the house. I feel now like a piece of shit!"

"I have gone through a lot in prison these last seven years. But I would like to get out for the sake of my four children. That is what I find hardest to bear here. They need me so much!"

" In three years in prison, he had never been called for a visit, had never seen the waiting room. When the CO did call him, he didn't believe it. After the visit, he told us: "Now I will have something to think about. Today is an event for me!"

"They are always talking about building prisons. But what you see here, what you learn, is that there are people who don't belong in prison. Why not start by letting them out? Then there would be room for the others."

"There are some people here in prison who can't say anything about it. Sometimes they are innocent. But if they talk, if they say aloud what they know, somebody will settle accounts with their families. They'll be condemned to death."

The group upstate, and the families, as I have already said, are an extension and enlargement of our parish at Rikers. This is not official, and no effort is made to interfere with what goes on elsewhere. We have no special privileges. It is simply done in the name of friendship, and of what we once began together. The Sisters of the Gospel, especially Amy and Carmen, have taken this to heart as their first priority. If it were not such a matter of time and of means, we would all like to go there together. We do have, as I have mentioned, The Link, a quarterly newsletter that marks the unity of all of us and is our obligatory and practical response to the abundance of letters we receive. . . .

We need people like Jacques Travers, a magnificent brother in our neighborhood, the saint of Brooklyn, who was taken away much too early by cancer. He often came to Rikers: a giant, open-hearted man, extreme in his actions and in his work for the faith. He said one day: "Yes, I have eliminated authoritarianism, violence and lying from my conduct absolutely, because that style is neither Christian, nor human, nor effective." With his friends and ours from our beloved Catholic Worker, with Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, he wanted "a world where it will be easier to be good."

"If every family that had the means to do so would take in one homeless person, there wouldn't be a problem in New York," he often said.

Those who are suffering from AIDS, at Rikers or elsewhere, deserve a special mention. In 1988, forty-six died of AIDS in here. AIDS victims are first in the thoughts of many people. Their unique situation makes a powerful impact from top to bottom: those who fight, who hold on to hope or who have none left, those who plunge into the incomprehensible, and those who know nothing. Many are the memories of our meetings, of dialogues without masks, of approach, refusal, acceptance. Many are the memories of friendship. "I don't need nurses -- just the other sick people. We help each other." I think of Nicholas and some others who wanted so much not to die in prison. I think of this one, departing in freedom, another in ridicule. "Why do they let somebody die in prison?" To that question I have no answer. . .

This prison at Rikers is not my kingdom. But I agree with what an Andean bishop said: "A people and the gospel are enough for me." At Rikers, as I hope I have shown, there is a people, and there is the gospel. So I can say, without being deaf to the cries or blind to the responsibilities, "That is enough for me.

We need to talk to one another. If my readers retain nothing from these pages except that one simple but pressing invitation, it will be enough; for talking, in prison or anywhere else, is often life itself. It means killing the beast. It means keeping, in this place where its rejection is so natural, the proof of human existence. A world built solely on justice, on law, cannot replace a world of dialogue.

How many times have I witnessed the frustration of prisoners who have never had the chance to explain, to tell from start to finish what has happened to them. How many know nothing of their lawyers, have never seen them, have no idea what is going on. And when they are Hispanics or others who do not understand the language, the darkness is multiplied.

I am not absolving anyone or justifying anything, but how often have I seen the hate and tension melting simply because of a word, a dialogue begun even through the bars. In this house full of thunder and lightning, conversation is often the pearl that redeems everything; it means recognizing that it is only our sorrow that makes us human. It means not just "seeing" the other person, but learning about him or her and discovering something new together. It means assisting the other's self-discovery, because when we try to hide from everything, we no longer know who we are. And there are a lot of escapes here.

People hate what they do not know, says the Arab proverb. We have to break the glass of separation and ignorance. There is nothing else that immediately reveals our good conscience. Even if it is far from being a solution to everything -- even if it is just a good beginning -- we need to learn to talk to each other, especially when we think that everything separates us. In prison, you die of emptiness and being forgotten. . . .


A Christian spirituality will never get beyond revolt and despair unless it takes hold of them at least in a first and necessary movement which it must a1ways keep in memory. The good knight journeys together with death and the devil. Job and Ecclesiastes are both sacred books. --- Etienne Borne


I place this thought, tempered by fire, at the beginning of my conclusion. It was written by one of my teachers. And I apply it to all those "knights," not all of them in prison, but all of whom have experienced some taste of the negative and of evil. And I associate it with two sayings of Jesus: "This kind [of demon] can only be cast out by prayer" (Mk 9:29), and "No one is good but God alone" (Mk 10:19). . . .

I do not know whether Assisi and New York are still confronting one another on the walls of the cinema in Montreal, without being superimposed or mixed up. This way of juxtaposing them, of being able to take in both of them in one glance, of seeking for one single music in the two of them in order to better understand and appreciate them -- could it be that in order to do all this, we have to begin from some very hidden places, such as Rikers?

Someone said to me recently: "You ought to get more involved with New York, with the archdiocese. You are too attached to the Mission de France. But it's over there, and you are here!"

Also written by
Fr. Pierre Raphael:

God Behind Bars: A Prison Chaplain Reflects on the Lord's Prayer

published by Paulist Press.

Paulist Press
web site images ©

The Raphael book has no images illustrating the text. For design and informational purposes, relevant images have been added and captioned by the webmaster.

And I told him that what I had just been writing, these few pages scattered over time, were precisely due to the Mission. It was the Mission that invited me to give some form to the content of what I have experienced at Rikers. I think it is not a bad thing to find some brothers, at the same time close and detached, who, opportunely and inopportunely, probe us, attract our attention, set us in motion. These features we all share are our "story." And, because they are our story, they can be joined with those of others. I admit that I have been thinking primarily of the young people, especially those I have known. If I have had the privilege, more than once, of listening to young people's dreams, they also have the right to the stories of the older people; nothing remains alone, everything is in communication. And because, really, there is only one age, that one which measures itself only "by the extent of the future one has before one."

And what difference does geography make? I still love New York and Brooklyn, and I know that they have extended no miserly welcome to me. No less can be said of the seeds planted. I cannot forget. I have seen too much death and life here. The choices are everywhere, the echoes, the possibilities.

But the parish where I am is not seen, is not heard. You can even disappear there quite cleanly without the world's being astonished or stopping to take notice. It renews itself from time to time, even rather rapidly, not so much through the efforts of its pastors from outside as through the essence of the flock itself. Viewed from afar, it has no face, no interest, no future. It is over there, near LaGuardia Airport. There is also a big cemetery not far away. There is a lot of water around it. People are often forced to enter it, or are put there for all sorts of reasons. Some of them are quite strange. You can't do anything there. They say it is dangerous. One thing is sure, and you can count on it no matter where or from which side they go in, and no matter what twists and turns they make --no one who once gets into the place will ever come out the same.


NYCHS presents these text excerpts from Pierre Raphael's Inside Rikers Island: A Chaplain's Search for God by permission of its author who retains the copyright © and reserves all rights thereunder. For more about the book and how to obtain it, contact Fr. Raphael at Abraham House where he is spiritual director, visit Orbis Books, Amazon.Com, or Barnes and Noble.
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