At this point in my life,
Done so many things wrong,
I don’t know if I can do right.
If you put your trust in me,
I hope I won’t let you down.
If you give me a chance, I’ll try.
At this point in my life
I’ve mostly walked in the shadows,
Still searching for the light.
Won’t you put your faith in me?
We both know that’s what matters.
If you give me a chance, I’ll try.
You see, I’ve been climbing stairs,
But mostly stumbling down.
I’ve been reaching high, always losing ground.
You see I’ve conquered hills,
But I still have mountains to climb.
And right now, right now,
I’m doing the best I can.
At this point in my life.
(At This Point In My Life: Tracy Chapman - 1995)
While driving to Palmdale last month, it occurred to me that I hadn’t written an essay about jail in quite a long time. My first thought was that the weekly task of meeting with inmates to discuss our common struggles to be better human beings, and establishing a consistent relationship with God had become too routine and satisfying.
“I suppose there’s nothing worth writing about,” I said to myself, thinking of the individuals who came out of their dorm cells each week to join us. Those smiling men looked happy and glad to be free of the confining walls and bars, away from the aggressive talk and harsh words, and the angry and sullen faces of their despairing cellmates. Our weekly ministry provided these men with a unique and momentary opportunity to be at liberty and at peace for 90 minutes on Mondays and Wednesdays. But then, like a dark cloud suddenly covering the sun and blackening the sky, my thoughts changed. I remembered Adrian, and how his actions had forced me to doubt my instincts as a chaplain, and question my opinion of the men I meet with every week in jail. I realized that I had willingly suppressed all thoughts of Adrian and purposely omitted any mention of him in my journal. I was obviously in denial that his actions were destructive and maliciously driven. All of my experiences in jail have been positive, illuminating, and reaffirming – but something happened a while back that shook me and forced me to reexamine my feelings about forgiveness, and the men I work with every week.
The first time I encountered Adrian, I was teaming with Isaac and working with our usual group of 20 men, with 5 newcomers. We’d gotten a late start to the session because an earlier lockdown had delayed the serving of “chow” for about an hour. A lockdown freezes all sounds, actions and movements in a dorm cell, and forces all the inmates to stay on their bunks until the All Clear is announced. So the men who came out to join our program that night were restless and eager to move and speak to one another. One newcomer in that group seemed particularly animated and anxious to talk, engaging me in conversation right away. He asked my name, where I was from, and what kind of program we were offering?
“How often do you come?” he queried, not seeming to listen to my previous answers. “Who comes on Wednesday? Do you show movies, or just talk?” he continued, not missing a beat.
Surprised by so many questions, I good-naturedly answered him at first, but soon became annoyed by his persistence and unwillingness to listen. He was monopolizing all my time and forcing me to ignore the influx of men who were arriving. I finally suggested that he sit down and I would address his questions when we started the sessions.
My unease continued growing when I discovered that he had chosen to sit next to me, peppering me anew with questions the minute I sat down. He was a young Hispanic man, about 20 to 25 years of age, with a round, moon face. He was stocky and short, but clearly muscular and strong. His hair was beginning to grow back on what was once a shaved head that still showed the tattoos that covered it. Those designs complemented the gang tattoos on his neck, arms, and hands. Reluctantly at first, I began feeling that his voice, movements, and speech seemed slippery, cloying, and suspicious in this place.
“Do you have any pencils?” he began, looking at the box of supplies I placed under my seat. “Can I have one now?”
“Yes and no,” I replied, sharply, hoping to finally shut him up. “Wait till the end of the program”.
Once Isaac and I finally calmed down the restless group of men, I noticed that my persistent young friend continued to be active and was now reaching down and fingering the contents of my program box. This was the plastic container that carried the pamphlets we used with our groups, and held the phonebooks, bibles, pencils, and reading materials we distributed to the men at the conclusion of each program.
“Excuse me,” I chided him gently, moving the box away from the reach of his intrusive fingers, “that is for later”. I tried hiding the irritation in my voice that was slowly developing into a feeling of open mistrust toward this young man.
Isaac and I quickly concluded that all of the men, especially the regulars, were in a jovial, light-hearted mood after being freed from the confines of their cellblocks and the paralysis of the seemingly endless lockdown. As each man introduced himself by name, the group loudly repeated the name in unison, followed with hearty words of welcome and greeting, as if they were old friends:
“Terry!” they shouted, after Terry introduced himself, “Hello, Terry! Alvin! Welcome Alvin! Greg!” they cheered, “Hello, Greg!”
This went on and on until each man in the circle had been hailed and greeted. Then another pair of regulars, Louis and Hector, stood up and instigated a minor version of a Baseball Park’s crowd “wave”. Around and around, the up-stretched arms of the men waved, as they stood up and then sat down. We finally calmed the men down and centered them to the task at hand when Alvin volunteered to start the program with an opening prayer.
I’ve always envied the practical use of prayer for bringing order and calm at the beginning of a class or discussion. For years I’d watched Kathy, my wife, and other Catholic schoolteachers and administrators bring quiet and peace over a rowdy or noisy group of people or students by calling them to prayer. The opportunity allows for a moment of reflection and the centering of thoughts and emotions to the task at hand. The inmates who volunteer to lead the prayer are always very effective at reminding the men of their past choices, the loved ones they left behind, God’s forgiveness of their transgressions, and faith in trusting God’s will in determining their future sentences or court decisions. Alvin’s prayer was the perfect preface to the pamphlet we were using that night. It pictured a man looking at his reflection in a mirror with the words, “TAKE A LOOK”, along the side of the booklet.
It was during the discussion about the meaning of this picture that Adrian, leaning over and interrupting my attention to the speaker, asked me yet another question.
“Can I borrow your pen for a minute?” he said. “I want to write some of this down”.
Dubious that Adrian’ seeming interest in the discussion was motivating his request, and annoyed that I had no real reason to distrust him, I handed him my Bic ballpoint pen with a caution:
“I need this back”, I whispered to him, sternly.
Later, when Isaac assumed the facilitating role, I looked over at Adrian and extended my outstretched hand, waiting for the return of my pen.
“See,” he said, showing me the sentences he had written on the pamphlet around the picture, and adding, “thank you”, as he handed the pen back.
It was at that point that some whisperings among the men caused me to look up and notice the blinking red light over the guard station that had prompted their comments to each other.
“It’s another lockdown,” sighed Manuel, another regular, sitting to my left.
“Okay, guys,” I said aloud to the men, trying to sound reassuring. “Let’s ignore the light and keep going. The guards sometimes just lock the doors of the dayroom from the outside and let us finish the program”.
I barely finished those words when a young, blonde haired deputy stuck his head through the door and announced, “Sorry, Chaplain. The inmates need to get back to their dorms”.
In a controlled flurry of actions, Isaac and I were able to say a concluding prayer and begin distributing some of our materials as the men stacked their plastic chairs, said their farewells, and lined up by the door to return to their dorms. During this bustle of activity some of the men, Adrian included, asked for bibles.
“Just write that request next to your names on the sign-in list”, I said quickly, handing them my clipboard and pen, as my attentions were directed elsewhere. It was only later, when Isaac and I were walking back to the Chaplain’s Office that I realized that my pen was not in my shirt pocket or on the clipboard. I couldn’t put down a growing suspicion that my wily friend Adrian had taken my pen during the confusion of returning the men to their dorms.
The following week, I was paired with Justin and we were able to complete a full program with the men in the Maximum Security dorms. This time all 24 of our most regular participants were there, along with Adrian. Again he sat right next to me and put my emotions on edge by pestering me with a blizzard of questions:
“Can I have a pencil, or an eraser? Can I see your holy cards? Do you have any bibles? Can I have an extra one for my bunkee?”
The only thing I could think of saying to stop the flow of questions was a plea:
“Adrian, I really need you to stop asking for things and wait for the end of the program.”
He shrugged and gave me an oily smile. “Sure,” he said, “I can wait.”
I didn’t relax until Justin approached me silently and removed the box of materials that was under my chair, taking it back to his seat at the other side of the circle. At that point I was able to give my full attention to the men and a discussion that got off to a rousing start.
Sometimes the men seem to take over a discussion session, directing the questions and conversation in a totally unexpected way. The pamphlet we used that night was called, “Got A Problem? Let’s Tackle It!” It featured a drawing of a uniformed football player smashing his padded shoulder into a tackling dummy. The men immediately started talking about the need to admit their problems, and begin confronting the poor choices they made and the addictions they were enslaved to, head on. They also spoke of practicing acts of Christian Love and acceptance while in jail, instead of waiting to be free. But the image and topic that generated the most conversation was a drawing of another man looking at himself in the mirror. The words, “We Can’t Lie To The Man In The Mirror” were written in bold letters, along with the question: “What would the man in the mirror tell you about yourself?” That question unleashed a torrent of testimonies and confessions of past actions and addictions. To a man, they recognized the mistakes they had made and the awful consequences that followed. Terry, a short, muscular African-American of middle age stunned the circle of men with a statement of such raw power that a reverent hush followed his every sentence.
“I was arrested for murder one week before my son was in an accident that put him in a hospital” he began. “I’m not going to burden you with the details of my case,” he added, looking downward. “It’s enough to say that it was a fabricated charge and I was not guilty. But because it was a capital offense they wouldn’t release me on bail. My son died in that hospital, and they wouldn’t release me to go to his funeral. I never saw my son alive after my arrest. Even though I wasn’t guilty of the capital charge, it was my choice that put me in the situation that got me busted. The man in the mirror would tell me that my choices put me in jail. Jail is God’s opportunity for me to finally figure it out and get it right. Jail is my school. Jail is my chance to learn – learn about myself, learn about God, and learn how to put Christ’s teachings of love and forgiveness into practice. I can’t put it off until I’m out of jail. I’ve tried that before and it doesn’t work that way. That’s why I come to these meetings – to learn. I listen and learn from you, and you, and you”, he said, pointing to each man in the circle. “I learn from you and the chaplains who call us out to sit together and talk about how we can put God’s words into practice. Learning to walk the talk – that’s why I come to these meetings.”
The thoughtful silence that followed Terry’s declaration was finally broken when Andrew, a skinny, elderly African-American, with a short, grizzled, grey beard raised his hand to speak.
“Why do we come out for ‘church’, anyway?” he asked, using the jailhouse slang for religious services. “No one has ever asked me that question. I’d like to know what each man has to say.”
So around the circle we went, each man stating his reason or reasons for leaving the dorm cell to attend a session of what the men call “church”. The answers fell into four categories: learning
to be better men and Christians, searching
for a connection with God, fellowship
with other men who share the same values and concerns, and escaping
the angry, noisy, and aggressive dorms, for a place of peace and caring. However, when it came to Adrian, smugly sitting back in his chair with his arms crossed over his chest, his grunting response was simply: “I come for the pencils”.
At the end of the session, after our prayer and farewells, Justin and I shared our mutual wonder at such a grace-filled group of men. As we were walking down the long concrete hallway, back to the office, and I was still feeling the glow of the evening, Justin added a new twist.
“You know that guy, Adrian?” he began. “You know, the one who said he comes to the program for the pencils?”
“Yeah,” I replied, “I know him. This is the second time he’s come out with me, and he always sits right next to me. He makes me uncomfortable,” I confessed.
“Well you should,” Justin added. “Raul, one of the other men in the group, spoke to me in Spanish and told me that Adrian stole your pen. He was bragging about it in the dorm last week.”
“You’re kidding!” I exclaimed, coming to a stop in the hallway. “He admitted it to everyone.”
“Yeah,” Justin replied, nodding his head. “That’s why I went over to retrieve your box of materials. I saw him going through your stuff while you were talking.”
“Unbelievable”, I said, shaking my head. “I always suspected it was him, but I had no proof. He just made me nervous. Wow, no one has ever stolen something from me in this place.”
Our session had run long that night, and by the time we arrived at the Chaplain’s Office all the other volunteers had gone. So we quickly put away our materials, logged in our data, and left quickly. Many days would pass before I returned to jail and followed up on the information Justin had given me.
A Valentine’s Day weekend, followed by President’s Day on Monday, meant that I would not be going to jail for 9 days. In the meantime, Isaac had agreed to cover my regular Monday night group and I would join his on the following Wednesday. We also agreed that he would show the video, Groundhog Day
with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell over those two meetings. Isaac told me that his family watched Groundhog Day
every year on February 2, and discussed its metaphors and messages at dinner after every viewing. He had convinced Gavin, the Head Chaplain, that it would be an excellent movie to stimulate discussion among the men about eliminating past behaviors, making better choices, and changing the way we act. These themes were constantly repeated in our Finding The Way
pamphlets, and they aligned very well with the goals of the Jail Ministry program. So showing the movie on Monday, with a follow-up discussion Wednesday, was our general outline for that week. I purposefully tried not to make any further plans about what I would do or say at the next session, about the movie or about Adrian. Over time, Isaac, Justin, and I have learned to always expect the unexpected in jail, and to go with God’s will (and the vagaries of the penal system). I wasn’t sure what I’d do about Adrian, but I felt confident that after discussing it with Isaac, we’d figure something out.
As it turned out, Isaac was very familiar with Adrian, and had experienced many of the same feelings and sensations about him. He also told me that Raul, the same inmate who had spoken to Justin about the stolen pen, had told him as well.
“So,” Isaac concluded, “what do we do now?”
“We exclude him,” I said promptly. “We don’t trust him,” I added, fearing that my initial response lacked supporting evidence. “He tries to manipulate us and takes advantage of our program, and the other men know it.”
“Maybe we should talk with him first, “Isaac suggested, gently. “You know, give him one more chance.”
“Fine,” I snapped, impatiently. “If you want to give him another chance, then YOU get to sit next to him and keep an eye on him. I don’t trust him, and I’d prefer him out.”
“Okay,” Isaac conceded, “maybe your right.
“Look,” I reiterated, “he stole my pen, so I’ll be the one to tell him”.
Since we were watching the second part of Groundhog Day
, Isaac had made a list of the 22 men who had seen the first half. We planned to call the men out from their respective dorms cells, name by name. I explained this to the deputy at the guard station when I showed him our list, and alerted him to our exclusion of Adrian.
“We don’t want this man coming out with us,” I told the deputy, circling Adrian name on the list. “I’m not sure if he’s going to make an issue over this or not, but he has a tendency to be argumentative and persistent if he doesn’t get his way.”
“Oh, Adrian,” the guard acknowledged, reading his name, “yeah, I know him, a real jailhouse lawyer. Okay,” he added, “I won’t let him out.”
Even as I approached Adrian’ dorm, he spotted me and moved to stand immediately opposite me on the other side of the bars.
“Are you showing the movie tonight?” he began asking.
“Yes,” I replied, ignoring him further, holding up the list between us and calling for the attention of the dorm so I could explain our call out procedure.
“Am I on your list?” interrupted Adrian, slyly, as I paused to begin my roll call.
“No,” I said, curtly, realizing that I would have to deal with Adrian before continuing.
“I saw the first part of the movie with Isaac,” Adrian pleaded. “Why can’t I come out to see the rest?”
I put down the list of names that I had used as a shield and looked Adrian squarely in the face.
“Adrian,” I said calmly and firmly, “your name is not on the list because I took it off. I don’t trust you.” That was the moment I had dreaded and feared for the last 9 days. How would he react? What would he say? Would he make a scene, becoming angry and belligerent, or simply argue with me?
“Okay,” Adrian said, simply, “I get it.” And he moved away from the bars, fading into the dorm background.
Relieved, I continued with my general announcement, explaining the procedures and reading the names of the men we were calling out for our program. I did this at the three dorms and then returned to the guard station to await the release of the men.
“Tony”, Adrian called out, having reappeared at the bars and gesturing for me to approach him.
I walked up to the bars of his dorm again, acting calmer and more confident than I felt. “Yes, Adrian,” I sighed, standing across from him.
“Hey, look man,” he pleaded. “I’m sorry, you know. Can you give me another chance and let me come out?”
“I accept your apology, Adrian,” I said slowly, “and I’ll pray for you. But I can’t trust you after the things you’ve done. I’m sorry.”
“Okay,” he said with a final shrug, and slid sideways along the bars and disappeared.
I had one more encounter with Adrian in jail. It was the week after our final Groundhog Day
showing and discussion. I happened to walk by the dayroom we used for our sessions and found it already occupied and set up for another meeting of some kind. When I entered to investigate, I spotted Adrian talking to another inmate who I also recognized.
“Are you setting up for ‘church’?” I asked, looking down at one of the inmates seated near the door.
“Nah,” he replied, leaning back in his plastic chair. “We’re having a ‘town hall meeting’. The lieutenant called it to bring the dorm reps together to discuss some problems.”
At that moment Adrian materialized by my side. “Can I talk with you, Chaplain?” he asked.
“Sure, Adrian,” I replied, hiding my surprise and trying to sound professional and in control.
“Look,” he said, when we were standing alone and out of earshot. “I know I can’t get you to trust me again. I get that. I blew it. I just want to be sure that you forgive me and that you’ll pray for me.”
“Yes, Adrian,” I said. “I forgive you. I truly want the best for you, and I will pray for you and all the men.
“Good, “ Adrian replied. “That’s what I wanted to know.” And with those words Adrian left me to sit with the other men in the dayroom.
In the Orientation To Jail
I attended in 2009, when I first joined this ministry, the training sergeant stressed the need for vigilance against being manipulated, used, or exploited by the inmates. He recommended that all volunteers be suspicious of the men they worked with, and to refrain from any physical contact, such as handshakes or hugs. We were especially warned against doing favors or passing messages for the men, and told to keep wallets, cell phones, or personal items out of the jail, because they could be stolen or used by the inmates. While the prohibitions against cell phones, personal property, and carrying messages made sense, the suggestions to be wary of the men, and avoid physical contact, did not. Our Finding The Way
program, and jail ministries of all religions and faiths, does not screen the men who come out to meetings and study groups. We trust that the men who join these sessions are men of goodwill who are seeking knowledge, fellowship, or a peaceful environment. We never expect men to attend our groups to spy, exploit, or manipulate the program or the facilitators. We do this without being patsies. We have rules and expectations in conducting our sessions, and we have excused and excluded men from attending in the past. However, we remain secure in the belief that while we are in their midst, we are safe, protected, and cared for, by the same men that we serve. So it took me awhile to process what Adrian had done, and determine how it might affect my feelings toward the other men.
You see, I often tell the men in our groups that despite the poor choices they made in the past, they are GOOD MEN. They are simply men who made bad choices, and who struggle, like all men, in and out of jail, to be free of addictions, bad habits, and vices that undermine our efforts at being happy and fulfilled human beings. But we are also men who must face the consequences of our choices and actions. We are men who screw up and who can make selfish and destructive choices. That is the human condition. This, in so many words, is what I tell the men in our groups – and I mean it. But I never actually SAW the poor choices they made, the exploitive and abusive actions they performed on others, or the addictive and destructive behaviors that precipitated their arrest and incarceration. And I was certainly never a recipient or a “victim” of these actions. While we are together in a circle, the men are in the process of reforming themselves. I only see them in a circle of support and discussion, and they’re usually on their best behavior. Adrian was the first man I experienced who brought his poor choices and bad decisions into our group and put them into practice. At first, I saw Adrian’ actions as a betrayal of my trust and good faith, and I was angry and offended. I was angry with myself for ignoring my distrust and suspicions, and offended that Adrian had manipulated me and stolen my property. Confronting him and excluding him from attending any more sessions was the right response, and I hardened myself to say the right words and follow through on my decision.
Now, after having resumed the usual Finding The Way
program in jail, and interacting with our “regulars” over the last few weeks, I’ve come to the realization that Adrian’ actions actually forced me to “walk the talk” when he begged for my forgiveness and prayers. Even though his apology never sounded that sincere, he definitely admitted, “blowing it” – whatever that meant. But the last time we met at the “town hall meeting”, Adrian clearly wanted to be sure that I forgave him and that I said those words aloud. You see forgiveness was never part of my original script. I was simply going to confront him and exclude him from further attendance. That was to be the fair consequence for his actions. My righteous indignation had no room for Forgiveness
. But having said the word in the town hall meeting, I couldn’t take it back – I owned it. I had been firm in my resolve to exclude him and forget him, but somehow, the words of forgiveness prevented the hardening of my heart. I did pray for him the following week, after listening to the men introducing themselves once again in our circle. I could never look upon these men with suspicion and doubts, and I refused to build a barrier of separateness between them and me. I’ve come to know these men as people who measure themselves by their actions, not their talk. In their dorms, violent and aggressive men who brought the same behaviors into the jail that got them arrested in the first place surround them. As they replied when asked why they came to “church”, many come out to be safe and among brothers, and many come to learn – but none come out just to “talk”. As Terry explained when he shared, if one doesn’t walk the talk, the talking is pointless. It is not enough for these men to talk about God’s love and compassion, and Christ’s sacrifice of himself on the cross for us – we are called to take up that cross and adopt Christian (Christ-like) behaviors. And for them, that means right here in jail.
Were I to employ the practice of Ignatian Spirituality in examining my conscience and searching for the presence of God in my day, I would have to admit that He was manifested when Adrian asked for my forgiveness and prayer. Sure, it’s easier to see God in the stories and testimonies the men share of their conversion experiences, or to hear God when I tell them that despite their actions and sins, they are Good Men and that God forgives them. But honestly, that final encounter with Adrian at the town hall meeting was my “God encounter”. It was my chance to release my anger and indignation, and walk the talk in jail.