‘So, what’s it going to be tonight?’ asked our babysitter, some years ago, ‘Church? A Bible study? Or a fun evening out at the prison?’ We laughed, but he was right. In the early years we looked forward to our prison visits with a mixture of excitement, anticipation and anxiety.
Our involvement started through a friendship with a member of the Prison Fellowship, who asked us to do presentations to the prisoners. We would convene at our house, having rushed home from work for the hour long drive to the prison. Most of the journey would be spent in discussing what each of us had prepared, or not prepared, as the case often was. The fact is that we felt terribly inadequate. We would get together on a Sunday after lunch, and agree on the topic or focus for the presentation, and then struggle to think of anything that seemed relevant to their situation. ‘What have we got to say to them that might be helpful?’ we would moan.
The first chaplain we worked with was an ex-borstal boy himself, who was very much ‘one of the lads.’ His relationship with them was like that of an older brother. They liked and respected him, and there was a free and easy atmosphere in the chaplaincy. Occasionally we would get troublemakers who would call out silly remarks and try to impress each other while we were talking. It wasn’t until we very tentatively tried our first attempt at worship that we realised that many of them were nervous. When we began singing, there were waves of uncontrollable giggles. Despite this setback, at this time we had our first encouragement when the chaplain told us that they liked our presentations best of all the groups simply because we were ourselves and didn’t try to put on a show.
After a time our presentations settled into a pattern, and a very Orthodox one at that. We would focus on whatever Feast was current, and two or three people would speak, interspersed with a few short hymns, ending with a time of open prayer. Gradually, we learned to make points by telling stories, the more personal the better.
We will always be indebted to the next – and current – chaplain, who altered the atmosphere in the chaplaincy in a subtle but very marked way. For a start, as a woman, they related to her quite differently from the previous chaplain. She became their friend, older sister or very often mother. They could let go and cry in her office – a near impossibility with a man. Secondly, she began by eliminating all those prisoners who were only coming to get out of their cells. She then spent long hours getting to know the remaining ones, and encouraging them in their search for faith. Gradually, the chaplaincy began to seem like a haven of peace in a very noisy and violent place, a place where they could be themselves and relax.
Knowing that most of the groups who came to the prison chaplaincy relied on rousing hymns and talks as their staple fare, and remembering the waves of giggles which had met our first attempt at singing Orthodox music, it was a long time before we dared to introduce Orthodox worship. When we finally did, we did it properly, or as properly as possible in the circumstances. We lit many lampadki, turned out the harsh overhead lights and, as it was around the time of Theophany, ended the service by inviting them to come up and drink some holy water. There was practically a stampede to get there first, and that was when we first realised that Orthodoxy had something distinctive and precious to offer to these – by and large – totally secularised young men. The soft lights had the instantaneous effect of helping them to relax, and the music was no longer greeted with giggles. They showed great eagerness to take something away with them, be it small paper icons, or even, once, a handful of incense which a prisoner persuaded me to give him before I realised that it would cause consternation amongst the drugs squad, and had to ask for it back.
Once they understood that censing means censing the image of God in each person, they would bow their heads with reverence when the censer came near them. Without mentioning anything about it, we would notice a number of people imitating us and crossing themselves. One of us would always start by going around the room asking each prisoner for names to be prayed for, and then they would all be mentioned in a long litany. All of them had family problems; most were very young parents with girlfriends and babies, and many of the relationships would break up before they got outside.
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for they shall inherit the kingdom of God’. Having puzzled over the meaning of these words for years, I think that I have at last discovered something of their meaning during our fifteen years of visiting prisoners. I was once asked by a prisoner during a Bible Study why I liked coming in. My answer was instantaneous and completely truthful. ‘Because I get a lot out of it, and feel close to God here’, I replied. Prison is a terrible place; it is violent, brutal, lonely and full of despair. Yet despite this, or probably because of it, God is present there in a very immediate way. This is where the poverty of spirit comes in. Prisoners have little to lose, at least if a safe and caring environment is created for them where they can drop their pretences. They crave goodness. Their pain is so strong that they are more receptive to God’s mercy.
What has Orthodoxy got to offer prisoners? The present generation of prisoners has largely been brought up with very little idea of Christianity. Christian culture has mostly bypassed them, and with it the tiresome prejudices against ‘smells and bells’. Their response to the physical side of worship is usually simple and open. If it’s a good thing, let’s have it, and whatever comes along with it, be it holy water or icons- and the more the better. And we believe that they respond favourably to our theology. We often speak about dealing with failure and difficulties. We don’t pretend to have it all ‘sorted’, and this is surely helpful to them, when they face such huge problems. We often use icons to illustrate points we are making or even as illustrations of stories we are telling. Many prisoners are illiterate, or semi-literate, and greatly appreciate this simple approach. The third point is that they respond to beauty – the beauty of the music and the beauty of the icons – and, as we all know, truth and beauty are closely intertwined.
Two stories come to mind, which illustrate something of what conversion may mean in prison. One is of a prisoner, who was converted in prison, and was so successful an evangelist that his fame spread around the prison population in the South West of England. We eventually made contact with him, and found him indeed to be a very impressive person. He ended up marrying one of his visitors and set up a centre for ex-prisoners with her. Sadly, he turned out to be a fraud, and went off leaving her with huge debts. Or was he a fraud? Maybe it would be better to say that his problems simply got the better of him. The story is not finished.
The second story is of a young prisoner, who we first noticed listening very quietly and attentively over a number of months. As time went on, his face changed and became more open and as if filled with light. He asked for and got the job of chaplaincy orderly, and he, the other orderly and the chaplain began every day with prayer. He confessed that he felt called to be a minister. The time came for his release and the chaplain arranged for him to go into a Christian-run hostel for ex-prisoners, so that he could avoid going home, which was drug-ridden. We kept in touch for a year or so, but were saddened and dismayed to hear that after a time he went back to prison. A few years after that a member of our parish met him at a Christian centre, and was told a story of terrible disappointments. He was, once again, struggling to get his life back on line.
The final point I would like to make is that, in answer to our nagging question in the early years of our prison visits, ‘What have we got to say that would be helpful to them?’, we can only be helpful to them if our emptiness meets with their emptiness. In some mysterious way, we become channels of God’s grace. Any attempt to evangelise from a superior vantage point would meet with resistance, be it active or passive. The previous prison chaplain once told us that an evangelist came in and began to harangue the prisoners about how they were all sinners. There was nearly a riot, and he had to be hustled out of the chaplaincy.
Prison visiting brings you to a realisation of your own emptiness, and of your own inability to help. We know that many of them face great problems when they leave prison, and that many will reoffend. We can’t pretend that we witness spectacular conversions which change the lives of hundreds of people. We can, however, testify to the fact that we have seen many unspectacular conversions, and have helped in a very small way, through God’s grace, to keep these tiny but bright flames alight.
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Church and Prison by Metropolitan of Morphou, NeophytosSetting the
Prisoners Free: The Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry by Fr. David Ogan