On Thursday mornings I usually visit the jail. I’ve been going for a while to Division 8, and today was no exception. I hadn’t been on the 5th floor for a while, so I asked the guard accompanying me if we could go up. We did. The 5th floor is the top floor of Division 8, and that division is the hospital inside the jail, to treat the mentally ill. That’s the reason the guard walks from tier to tier with me. It’s just in case the guys get violent. The tiers are where the guys live. We stand outside the door of the tier, and the guard pulls on the handle. The guard inside with the guys opens the door, and she tells him, “Ask the guys if they want to see the Kolbe House chaplain.” The guard shouts to the guys, “Anybody want to see the Kolbe House chaplain,” and they sometimes line up. Sometimes not, too. Today in most of the tiers they wanted to see the chaplain.
Near the end of my time on the 5th floor, we knocked on the door of 5G. The guys lined up and put their masks on. Before I talk to them, I have to write down their names and their booking numbers. Today, the guard was really helpful with that part of the visit. She would ask them when they came in… and I learned that the booking numbers start with the year, in this case most everyone’s number began with 2022. Then the next numbers are the day they came in, so a number would be something like 20220916, then 3 numbers at the end. That number would tell you that this person came into the jail on September 16 of this year. When you hear a number that starts with 2020, you have to think about how long the person has been in the jail. But that’s a story for another day.
Anyway, this really big guy comes out of the door. He’s maybe 6’4” tall, and he’s been working out. I’m thinking to myself, “If he takes a swing at me, how’s this guard going to do anything about it?” She’s maybe 4’ 3” tall! I take his name and number and write them in my little book. I have to record these for the jail administration. “So, Cedrick, how can I help you?” (not his real name) “Father, I just need a little prayer.” “Ok,” I answer him and take his hand in my hand. It’s about the size of a baseball mitt. “Would you like a Catholic prayer, or a Christian prayer?” “I’d like a Christian one, please.” So I look down and start the prayer. I pray for a little, asking the Lord to give him peace and healing, and to watch out for his family, and a few other things. I forget exactly what I was saying. I looked up, and tears were falling down his cheeks. My words caught in my throat for a second and I got some tears in my eyes. I looked down and after a minute continued praying.
When I finished, I looked up again, and told him, “God bless you.” He thanked me. We took a breath. The guard told him to wipe the tears off his eyes before he went back into the tier. He went in and I saw a few more guys from the tier. As I was leaving he came back to the door and thanked me again.
On the way to the elevator, I commented to the guard, “The guys usually don’t get so emotional.” “Yes, father, he must have really needed that prayer.”
It’s not all that hard to be a jail chaplain. You don’t have to be a priest, really. And you don’t have to be a very good person, either. All you have to be is a disciple of Jesus. His grace does all the rest.
Doing this work is the easiest thing ever. I think Jesus wanted me to have this experience today. When you’re a padre in a parish you can sometimes get into a dark place. The state of the church, worries about the parish and the parishioners, worries about our culture, my own sinfulness. Imagine it. Just visiting prisoners. Something so simple, and it makes a difference in someone’s life. You can do it, too!