By Peg Newman
I work in a psychiatric prison hospital, and, like most chaplains, I love my work. The prison features stand out dramatically — the barbed wire, the officers, the prison food, and everything else. That’s not the part I love.
On a typical day, if there is such a thing, I might facilitate a group on forgiveness, do rounds in a segregation unit, lead a Bible study, and see two or three patients for 30-minute pastoral counseling sessions. On a less typical day, the building that houses the chapel might be locked down because patients have been fighting, and the officers who normally oversee the building would be taking a patient to the emergency room. These are the times I catch up on emails, phone calls, and paperwork.
Many men are imprisoned more by their mental illnesses than by the barbed wire. (The modern medications with near-miraculous results do not help everyone.) Those are among the men I come to know well. Often they are the ones who most appreciate the safety and comfort of the chapel community. Some are lectors, Eucharistic ministers, and gift bearers. They hold the memory of the many priests who have volunteered over the years to come in for Mass and confessions. They are joyous when the cardinal comes and we arrange for a large Mass in the gym. Almost as exciting are the annual visits by the bishop for confirmations and occasionally baptisms. Religion feeds their strong faith and anchors their lives.
Several years ago, a prison official, a mental health clinician and I began what we named “The Companion Program.” Inmate workers who transfer to the hospital to work on maintenance, grounds, kitchen, etc., were invited to become companions to some of the patients who needed the most help, most often because of cognitive challenges or behavior difficulties. We developed an eight-week training program involving staff from all the disciplines. Many applied, but only 10 were selected. Assigned to a patient much like a buddy or big brother, they spend at least four hours a week together, and the bonds form quickly. The program is helpful for the patients and transformative for the inmates. The weekly supervision group always begins with an inmate sharing a spiritual reflection. As the years pass, the depth of these reflections continue to impress me.
I was blessed to do three of my extended units of CPE in prison settings, where I discovered that chaplaincy in prison gave me a strong and consistent awareness that I was a vehicle for God. My third unit brought me to the State Hospital. Though it was 16 years ago, I remember clearly driving home in the evening with a strong sense of God’s presence. I don’t feel God’s presence in the same way anymore, but I cherish the memory and I know that God is right there with me. When I am feeling depleted or frustrated by the work, I am sustained by that memory.
Men in prison, patients and inmates alike, are stripped of pretense. In our conversations, I find I have to be honest. There is no place for those religious phrases that have great meaning for some but have never spoken to me. I don’t say, “God never gives us more than we can handle” or “God doesn’t give us what we want, God gives us what we need.” Clearly these things do not appear to be true for the men I work with.
A man kills someone he loves dearly. How can God allow this to happen? There is no answer. But I am present when the man, with the help of medication and the passage of time, stabilizes and has to find a way to live with his actions. A jury may tell him he is not responsible for his actions, but more deeply healing is experience of God’s mercy offered through the sacrament of reconciliation. Learning to live with an agony that never goes away, a man needs to experience that mercy again and again. His faith and the support of the chapel community form the foundation of his survival. God’s presence is not subtle, not an abstract idea. Jesus walks with this man.
Another man hears voices. He explains that the medication that reduces the chaos of the voices also makes him feel sleepy, drugged, unable to function. His daily life is misery. He comes to my office wanting to know why God doesn’t answer his prayers. I tell him I don’t know, and I ask him if there is anything he knows for sure about God. He speaks of God’s love.
Reluctantly, the psychiatrist reduces his medication. Now he comes to my office explaining that he has been taken over by Satan. Just as his therapist does, I explain to him that the voices are a symptom of his illness and that he has most definitely not been taken over by Satan. He doesn’t believe me, but he accepts my offer to pray with him. I ask God to provide healing and strength and ever-deepening faith. He leaves my office a little calmer, a bit more hopeful. He keeps coming back to talk with me and to pray. He goes to church on Sunday, even when the voices object. I see God acting in his life even when he can’t. Slowly he comes to believe that Jesus will help him get through this painful time.
Group worship on the assisted living unit is the place I can most reliably feel God’s presence. It is there that I find my certainty that Jesus walks with me, just as he walks with the men I serve. I look around the room, and I see men as faith-filled as any I have ever met. Some arrive in wheelchairs while others shuffle in slowly. The walls are unadorned hospital green cinder blocks. The tables are caked with food not yet wiped up from lunch. I try to breathe through my mouth to minimize the unpleasant odor. Two inmate workers set up an altar, pass out the music booklets and plug in the CD player. Officers can sometimes be indifferent or even unkind about religious activities, but on this unit I am often told how important our weekly services are and how on Sundays the men keep asking if it is almost time for church. The singing is loud and full of enthusiasm. Voices are strong and earnest as we pray the Lord’s Prayer.
Silent retreats by the ocean feed my soul. The Easter vigil often awes me with beauty and hope. But it is in the worship service with the elderly, mentally ill men in their day room that God speaks to me the loudest.
Peg Newman, BCC, is a chaplain with the Department of Corrections in Massachusetts.