My first prison visit – a reflection

Driving Home From Potosi: a reflection by Tom Cummins

In May, 2001, I began the privilege of serving as a lay Catholic chaplain to offenders in the lockdown units at the Potosi Correctional Center. I approached the volunteer assignment with some humility and a whole lot of trepidation. But what I would like to share are my thoughts driving home from my first day of visits.

I had never seen a human being locked in a box before that morning of May 2. And what echoed in my mind was what Jesus says in Matthew 25:36, “I was in prison and you visited me.” In my incarnational theology, am I encountering the Real Presence locked in that room, that cell? In my parish church, and in all the other parish churches I have attended, there is also a place where we have “locked up” the Real Presence: the tabernacle. Ornate, artistic, full of symbols, tabernacles are prominent on the altars in our worship space. Consecrated hosts, the Body of Christ, are kept there safe and secure.

Is, then, the locked prison cell or room I approach a rude tabernacle? My heart tells me no; it’s much more. We believe that in the consecrated host the Body of Christ is sacramentally present under the appearance of bread. But there is something most profound when the Body of Christ is under the appearance of a human being; a human being who suffers and speaks of that suffering; a human being who hopes and prays and asks you to share in a discussion of those hopes and prayers; a human being looking through the mere slit of a window in the adjacent door and asking if he can talk with you next. Yes, the Real Presence on the other side of the locked door in Potosi is a presence here and now, alone now, suffering now, a child of God in the flesh, an embodiment of the Word. What a privilege to approach that altar.

We in Criminal Justice Ministry are called to be a Christ-like presence for those who are incarcerated, to show another way of being, to reveal an unconditional love, to be a non-critical, non-judgmental listener to the cries of the afflicted. The dialectical tension in this ministry is that Christ is working both sides of the locked door. Each of us, the offender and the minister, is a mediator of God’s dwelling within us, within the conversation, within the dynamics of the setting, within the entire criminal justice system. And all of this is being played out within Jesus’ command in John 15:12 “love one another, as I have loved you.”

My ministry at Potosi has just begun. I hope and pray for two things: that I don’t become intimidated by the persistent context of oppression, and that I don’t become callous to the stories and the individual cases. It will take prayer and God’s grace to avoid these two traps, either of which could render me ineffective as an instrument of God’s work in building the reign.

T. W. Cummins, June 24, 2001

6 Responses to “My first prison visit – a reflection”

  1. Robyn Lee Says:

    Your mission is admirable and a testament to Divine goodness inherent in the human spirit. God Bless and thank you for undertaking this important work Tom ~ RL

  2. mypenandme Says:

    Bless you for all that you do.

  3. maskednative Says:

    Bless you Tom, and as you comfort all those in prison, may you also be blessed with the comfort and understanding you have given since you first started your prison ministry.

    • Tom Says:

      Thank you, Teri. I am grateful that these men are a part of my life. When I’m not there, I miss them. Each time I travel down there to see them, I can feel the blessings flow, illuminating those little dark places that frequently sneak into my heart, dimming my spirit.

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