Holy Week stories resonate with prisoners and those who minister to them

April 19, 2011

A piece of wood atop a bathtub forms the altar for Sunday worship services at the Sing Sing men's maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York. But on Easter, the wood is removed and the bathtub becomes a font where prisoners -- typically identified only by number -- are called by name and baptized by immersion.

"It was very powerful for me to see these men who have done terrible things in their lives … and all of a sudden they want to be born again," recalled the Rev. Canon Petero Sabune, who baptized more than 100 inmates during seven years as Protestant chaplain there. In May, Sabune became Africa partnership officer for the Episcopal Church.

Holy Week's Gospel accounts of Jesus' arrest, imprisonment, trial and execution and the Easter triumph of his resurrection resonate with inmates who can relate the stories to their own experiences, say Episcopal prison ministers. About 2 million people are incarcerated in the United States according to the Justice Department.

"The story of Holy Week is full of pain and fear and betrayal and anguish, and most of us would probably rather skip that part of the story and move right from the Liturgy of the Palms to the celebration at Easter," said the Rev. Betsy Roadman, who pastors the Episcopal congregation and leads Protestant worship services each Monday at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, New York state's maximum-security women's prison. "My experience of these women … is that they fully engage in the story of the events of Holy Week because they have lived it and are living it in ways that most of us on the outside will never understand. For them, because Jesus lived what they've lived … there is no part of their lives that God doesn't understand and no part of their suffering that God through Christ has not shared.

"That makes a very profound impact on them during Holy Week," she said. "The women's experience of Jesus' suffering with them seems to give them the courage and power and strength to live even in prison as Jesus lived and taught, and that means for them sharing generously with each other and forgiving each other graciously and loving and praying for both their neighbors and their enemies."

Roadman plans and conducts services with Deacon Ann Douglas of St. John's Episcopal Church in Cornwall, New York, and Douglas' husband, Dwight, a trained musician. The April 18 worship at Bedford Hills was scheduled to use Palm Sunday's lectionary.. Worshipers would begin with a procession with palms while singing "Ride on, Ride on in Majesty," then do a congregational reading of the Passion, followed by the Eucharist and an a cappella rendition of "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?"

"We made a decision to use Luke's reading of the Passion Gospel," Roadman noted, "because that's the one that has the criminals, and we just try to make it as personal and as meaningful to them as we can."

Luke's Gospel describes two criminals crucified with Jesus, one of whom mocks him. The second rebukes the first criminal and asks Jesus to "remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replies, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." (Luke 3:39-43)

In Maysville, Kentucky, the Rev. Michael Henderson and Kay Miller, a trained lay chaplain from his congregation at the Episcopal Church of the Nativity, provide a "listening ministry" for inmates at Mason County Detention Center, a jail housing both men and women. Nativity's rector, Henderson also celebrates Eucharist on Tuesdays at the jail, sometimes with men from the general population, at other times with members of either the men's or women's rehabilitation group. This week he planned to conduct a Maundy Thursday service with foot washing during that time, a practice he introduced last year.

"That was tremendously moving for them and, because of that, for me, too," he said. "I think having somebody like me washing their feet is just something they never, ever experienced. And they're in there pretty much 24-7 thinking about what a mess they've made of themselves, how difficult their lives are, and then to have someone stoop down and wash their feet is just more than some of them can handle."

Sabune also led a foot-washing service during his years at Sing Sing, although first he had to convince prison officials this wouldn't violate the rule of no physical contact between "civilians" such as himself and inmates. "I said, ‘That's not physical contact. That's what Jesus did,' and I showed them in the Bible."

Good Friday's service focused on the seven last words of Christ, said Sabune, who has been invited to return to participate in Good Friday's worship.

Holy Week resonates with the inmates because they relate to what Jesus experienced, he said. "That's the week he gets indicted, tried, convicted and sentenced. … That's exactly what happened to them."

When you get arrested, he said, "you become a nobody. You get a number. The most dehumanizing process is what Holy Week is about. … We don't like to use the word convict, but Jesus was a convict, was a criminal."

Said the Rev. Valerie Dixon, "It's the story of falling and rising and having courage to get back up and feeling the Spirit lead you in those directions. Holy Week is very powerful."

Dixon, an associate at St. John's Episcopal Church in Niantic, Connecticut, teaches an interfaith program called Chrysalis at York Correctional Institution, the state women's prison in Niantic. The program provides spiritual "tools for transformation," such as prayer and meditation.

During Holy Week, participants are invited to create collages based on the stations of the cross. Each woman chooses a station and reflects on it: "How does this station speak to me in my own spiritual journey, in my own journey from brokenness through transformation to new life?"

The women create the collages using black construction paper and colored tissue paper, which looks like stained glass, and write reflections about what the stations mean to them. One woman wrote about Jesus being stripped, Dixon said. "Of course, that's a regular part of prison life."

Others write about Jesus' falls and the experience of falling and being lifted up again. "And then the dying, that there's got to be dying to old ideas and old patterns of behaviors as well as thoughts, but that Jesus' death was not the end," she said. "That was just the gateway to the Resurrection, to the complete transformation."

The collages are hung in a gymnasium, where inmates have an opportunity to meditate on them and to walk a labyrinth. Over the years, prisoners have completed six sets of collages, which outside churches borrow to use as stations of the cross during Holy Week, Dixon said.

Meaningful for ministers

While Holy Week programs can make a strong impact on inmates, working with prisoners also powerfully affects their ministers.

"I'm very much affected by my life with them," Henderson said. "They're always teaching me about humility, starting over, penance, penitence. And those things I learn from them, I do try to allow to shape me and shape my ministry and my words, my sermons and my congregation."

Choir members of Christ Episcopal Church in Rye, New York, participated in the Maundy Thursday services at Sing Sing for several years while Sabune was chaplain there.

"It's the best thing ever from a spiritual point of view," said the Rev. Canon Susan Harris, rector. "I can't think of anywhere I'd rather be."

"I could take in really conservative choir members who you would think would be very judgmental about everybody who was in prison, and they would go in there and say it was the most meaningful thing they'd done in years," she said. "We came out the winners every time."

It generally took an hour to get through prison security, and the inmates would sing and cheer when they finally arrived, she said. Knowing the choir and clergy skipped lunch to participate in the service, the inmates provided snacks. "On their tiny allowances, they would come up with Twinkies and Hostess cupcakes and juice."

From working at Bedford Hills, Roadman said, "I see death and resurrection in an entirely new way. The life that many of these women have led both outside of prison before they were incarcerated and inside of prison feels like death to me. I don't think I could do it. I don't think I could survive. And yet, with God, we can. We're empowered to live in a way that we couldn't otherwise. … I see resurrection every single time I come in contact with them in the way they care for each other."

The stories of former prisoners tortured into confessing crimes provided a powerful Good Friday message last year for members of St. Martin's, an Episcopal mission in Chicago. As reported in the Chicago Tribune, an investigation by a special Cook County prosecutor concluded in 2006 that former police Commander Jon Burge and his officers "obtained dozens of confessions through torture." Burge was sentenced in January to 4 ½ years in prison for lying under oath about the abuse.

Four of the abused men and an attorney who helped them spoke during the service, at which Sabune preached, recounted the Rev. Christopher Griffin, vicar. "Some of these men had never told their story, and they sort of broke down in the midst of it. It was very captivating. … Oh, God, some of the stories of the torture were … hard to sit through."

"At one point, there was not a dry eye [in the church], and at another point you could hear a pin drop," he said. Afterward, people told him: "That was one of the most powerful Good Fridays I've had."

At least two of the men and the attorney will return for this year's service on April 22.

During last year's service, Griffin said, "It felt like the place was being stripped clean, and I felt redeemed. … And the men themselves, they just cannot believe they were part of a church service doing this, being honored that way and listened to. It really kind of shook me."

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