By Fr. Paul Tolve
I was a prison chaplain for 22 years and 7 months (but who’s counting?). For 12 of those years, I directed the Pastoral Services Team (eight chaplains and over 400 volunteers) at the Westchester County Department of Correction in Valhalla, N.Y. Before New York’s bail reform went into effect, and before the pandemic hit, our population of incarcerated persons ranged from 1,300 to 1,500. But during the pandemic, the population dropped to just below 500 persons.
The pandemic drastically changed the way we ministered. Originally we could not visit the inmates, but we talked with them through their correction officer on their blocks. We also helped their families on the outside by calling them for the detainee. No services were conducted at first, but later we were able to offer Zoom services.
While supervising seminarians’ pastoral training, I would often say that the population you meet in the jail is the closest you can get today to what it was like when Jesus walked this earth. The jail holds every person who gets caught by police in Westchester County. We met people from all walks of life, and they didn’t want to be there. Different from a churched population! Nothing neat about it! Sloppy, unpredictable, depressing, and forgotten at times. People were hurting mentally, spiritually, sometimes physically. All religions were present and – at times – no religion. What did Jesus do? How did he meet them? What was his pastoral approach? Who did he touch and heal?
An image I would often use, for both detainees and staff alike, is that a diamond is formed from coal under intense pressure. God sees the diamond in all of us, no matter how damaged a person may be because of familial, social, spiritual, economic, and psychological pressures. I would share with them that God sees only the diamond they truly are, and when they find God’s love, the coal will disintegrate.
The chaplain is a vehicle of God’s love, in the sense that we must help others to find their part in the process. The chaplain must help the person to own their pain and what they may have done: “to name it is to tame it.” The chaplain must help the person to find the truth of their reality and bring it through the process of identification, truth-telling, reconciliation, and thus healing and inner transformation. At times, I would tell those I serve that they are like the sheep of God’s flock who have some mud on their face – just as we all do. As long as each of us are willing to get up each morning and look in the mirror, we will find God’s face gazing at us with mercy and love, no matter how much the mud and no matter how deep the layers of coal.
Fr. Paul Tolve recently retired as director of pastoral services at Westchester County Department of Correction in Valhalla, N.Y.