Posts Tagged ‘prison chaplain’

This Door That Separates Us

May 14, 2012

The other day I was speaking with an offender who has been in solitary isolation in one institution or another for more than three decades. I’ve known him for 11 years. Here is my poetic reflection on the essence of a big portion of our conversation.

 
“You relate differently,
Differently from others
I mean.”
He was being serious
Observant
After many years
Many years alone
In his cell for many years
Alone.
 
I replied,
“I believe I spend
My belief is that I spend
Much time while we talk
On your side of this door
This door that separates us.”
 
(How can I explain
The door?
How the door is not as real
As one might expect
Somehow I place myself
Through the door
On the other side as we talk
Through the door
This door that separates us.)
 
“Empathy?” he asks.
“No.
More of a resonance
A willingness to enter
Your existence
Your existence is something
To feel
I am willing to consider and to feel
Your existence
Your side of the door.”
 
 © 2012 Thomas W. Cummins

There is a healing aspect to the work

December 7, 2011

Regular and frequent are not my strong suits for visiting as a volunteer chaplain at two of Missouri’s maximum security prisons. Even when on schedule, I visit each prison once during the second week and once during the fourth week. When a gap in my being at either prison approaches one month, I pay the price.

Getting in the car for the one and a half hour drive to one of the prisons this past Tuesday morning was something I definitely didn’t want to do. Cookies were baking, the house was warm, the weather was cold and windy. Everything was very cozy, very tempting. Nevertheless, off I went.

Perhaps I didn’t mention that I also didn’t feel well at all, really felt out of sorts. Stomach was on edge; a mild but persistent headache damped my enthusiasm. The cold bothered me and chilled me more than usual.

My first stop at the prison was the staff restroom. Some time there might help. Anyway, shortly thereafter I decided to make the best of it, checked out a set of keys, a radio, and proceeded through the entry process: fingerprint scanner, x-ray tunnel, metal detector, visual ID check against the photo produced on a screen by my fingerprint input.

The complex is sprawling, and the housing units seem much lower than their two stories when the wind is whistling over the desolate recreation yard. If the buildings exerted any blocking action on the wind, I sure couldn’t detect it.

During count time there is no one to be seen. Entrance to the chapel area is a block away from the last of three gates I pass through and is clear across the yard. My checking in at the chapel is mainly to grab any new literature: copies of the Daily Bread booklet and War Cry, the magazine of the Salvation Army. The men I visit are in lockdown isolation and don’t have access to the chapel area where available reading material can be found in racks along the hallway walls.

By the time I was in the isolation wing and at a cell door talking to an offender, I was feeling OK. What was causing my reluctance, my being ill-at-ease, my wanting any excuse to stay home? I believe it’s partly (mostly?) intimidation and anxiety. When I’m away for a while, the place intimidates me. I feel as though I don’t belong. There is also a sense of having let the men down because of my long absence.

As for feeling better so quickly, getting back into the role helps. But I also feel there is a healing aspect to the work. The ministering at any given cell door is two-way. Minister and ministered become one. For that I’m grateful.

A senseless activity

February 13, 2011

During the early hours of Wednesday, February 9, 2011, just after mid-night, Martin Link was executed by the State of Missouri. Why? No reason other than he committed one of the few murders which result in a death sentence in Missouri – about 1 percent.

An individual taking revenge on a person who murdered a loved one is an illegal activity. The state taking revenge on that murderer is a senseless activity, completely absent any meaning. Killing someone who is defenseless and poses no threat to society defies explanation.

There are more than 40 men on death row in Missouri. (I invite you to name two.) These are men the state can’t wait to execute. But to what end? Who knows their names or what crime they are guilty of committing?

Mr. Link’s crime needed to be spelled out in several newspaper articles and TV reports over the weeks prior to his execution.  If he was such a menace to the life and welfare of any of our fellow citizens, you’d think his presence among us would have been top of mind everyday for the past 20 years.

To be sure, his crime was most distasteful, violent, and devoid of any public sympathy. I’ll let the reader Google his name for the details. During my 2-1/2 years of visiting him on a regular basis, I was unaware of his crime. Seldom am I aware of the crimes of any of the men I minister to in solitary confinement.

I intentionally choose to not research offenders’ crimes. No matter how hard I try, it is difficult to avoid being judgmental. Meeting them where they are and as they are is what I’m called to do as a volunteer chaplain in two of Missouri’s maximum security prisons.

Getting to know Marty Link was a privilege for me, and to have him as a companion on a small segment of my faith journey. My comments at his prayer service prior to his burial on Friday, February 11 are linked here.

Let us all pray for wisdom and maturity among our elected officials so that an end to capital punishment can be achieved in our states and nation. We are becoming more and more alone in the world in our inability to forgive and open the door to redemption. Denying access to repentance and a life of meaning, even in prison, doesn’t reflect what this country stands for.

A manifestation of God’s grace

December 7, 2010

What am I to make of a sudden feeling of well-being, contentment? I am most aware that the feeling can’t be summoned … at least I’m not able to do so. But the very palpable sensation comes out of nowhere. Perhaps it is simply a manifestation of God’s grace. In any event, I like it, and it costs little.


Last evening I went out into the country to meet with the consultors (parish council) at a small Catholic parish. Eleven years ago I worked with the same faith community in their development of a strategic long-range plan. They seem to be ready to begin the conversation about what a next phase might look like.

I brought along some excerpts of my notes from those earlier sessions. Attendance and participation at those five sessions during the first quarter of 2000 were terrific and led to the dedication of some new classrooms and a parish community center in late 2007.

My recommendation is to reconvene and cover much of the same ground in the first quarter of 2011. Much has changed with a different group of students in the school, many new parishioners, changing demographics of the county, and the current economy. Expectations of all concerned need to be voiced as well as heard. With a little success under their belt, the future may seem more clear.

We’ll take a “today” look at the mission of the planning group, revisit the values held by the faith community, and re-articulate the “desired state” or vision for the parish, parishioners, church, and school. The group will explore to what extent Phase I moved toward the vision, and determine the logical next steps.

Frankly, I can’t wait to get started with such a wonderful faith-filled group accompanied by their very energetic and committed pastor. A fringe benefit is the peaceful 1-hour drive out to that little church on the hill.


Here at home our new driveway turned out pretty well. In a few weeks we’ll finish updating our windows. When it gets cold at night, we may even be able to leave the drapes open, sudden temperature changes won’t fog up the dining room and living room windows, ice won’t form leaving puddles on the sill.

All the other windows … twenty plus four glass door panels … have been replaced over the past several years. Doing it in phases hasn’t saved any money, but the psychological impact of an all-in-one sticker shock was nice to avoid.


Visiting the men in prison takes on a marked shift in tone as Christmas approaches. The isolation and loneliness are mentioned more often. There is talk about sending cards, making charitable contributions, remembering the holidays as a child. Listening is the best I can do, and emotions flow freely when a chaplain is at the door. It is a time when one lowers facades a little.

A small attempt to be present

October 13, 2010

Missouri has an execution scheduled for 12:01 a.m. on October 20. I have known Roderick Nunley for nearly 5 years, and we have talked on a regular basis during my chaplain visits at his cell door.

On the evening of October 19, I will hold my own personal vigil as a small attempt to be present to the reality of what’s happening in that space and time.

Much convincing and prodding

September 6, 2010

My quiet time each morning is from 6:45 a.m. to about 7:30 a.m. Lately I have been spending the time with the daily Lectionary readings and one of Thomas Merton’s books: Thoughts in Solitude. The book’s chapters are short, and one or two at a time usually does it.

Today is Labor Day.This morning as I sat down I was wondering why I was thinking about going down to the prison to visit the men in solitary. I wondered why I was going down there when I could/should be relaxing on the patio and enjoying the beautiful weather. Going down there at all usually requires much convincing and prodding on my part. After a few minutes, something inside me said, “Do your readings.”

In Merton was this quote on page 103: “Whatever may be our vocation we are called to be witnesses and ministers of the Divine Mercy.” There it was. A clear and unequivocal statement of why I felt the pull to drive 1 hour and 20 minutes south to stand in a noisy wing trying to listen to some offenders through solid steel doors.

I went. It was good.