It had been months since I visited Pelican Bay Maximum Security Prison. My 'brown card' expired. I had to resubmit paperwork, TB results, explain my volunteer ministry, list what 'extra skills' I may have and get back on the rotating visitation calendar. Prison bureaucracy may not be designed to intimidate, then again it may not be designed at all, but it stands like an armed guard at the gate.
A week before my next chapel date I got a late night call, "Could I make the early Sunday service to fill in for a flu-ridden speaker?"
Up at five to make the drive along the dark coast to the prison I played some jazz spirituals to awaken both my spirit and my brain. I usually prepare a sermon of sorts, and make some notes for possible discussion and study but have learned that once inside my personal agendas become moot.
Check-in goes well enough, as it's a Sunday I recognize no one, including myself. Something happens to my posture, my countenance as I step inside the barbed wire. I straighten up. My smile gets wider, I can feel it in my cheeks. I hum Walking On Sunshine as I sign in the log book and make small talk with the clerk about my saxophone. There is a weird sense of timelessness as I clear the last checkpoint and enter the chapel.
Every time I set foot inside it's as if I never left. All the visits of the last five years roll into one epistoler episode. This concrete block room with torn Naguahyde chairs is the Holy of Holies. The Temple of the Living God. I'm chagrined to say I've never felt the presence of the Holy Spirit anywhere else like I do in the prison chapel, not even at Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome, although I must admit I went there as a tourist, not a chaplain.
When the inmates file in I'm happy to recognize a few faces. Handshakes and fist bumps go around the room and then it's time to pray. A rookie administrator wants to know if we should sing some songs first and, ever the gentleman, I remind him this isn't nursery school and we'll get our praise on once we've reached some new territory, some new perspective, in the Kingdom.
We dive into two of the most telling words in the New Testament. "Jesus wept." (John 11:35) The story of Lazarus being brought forth from the tomb. The suggestion that Jesus also wept for us leads us to take turns calling each other to step out of our dead lives into something miraculous.
It isn't long before someone breaks into song. "Once was lost but now am found" goes around and around the room like a winged echo. As it is one tune I actually know I get the horn out of the case and trill us into a New Orleans style call and response. This is the day the Lord has made and we're rejoicing as if death has lost it's ring-a-ding sting.
A paradox of prison communities is the same people who hope, from a distance, that the Gospel is true, also dismiss it with a heard it all before attitude. Becoming living epistles, not chapter and verse experts, is how we shed our burial clothes and invite people into new life. The something different about us, is actually a Someone.
In the Beatitudes, Jesus assures us our weeping will turn to laughter. He should know, His tears were shed as blood for the joy set before Him. Scripture tells us the joy of this same Lord is our strength and the test of this strength is compassion in the face of tribulation. The smile we share is evidence of the redemption we received. The truth of the matter is if we ain't happy, we ain't His.