Pray for Peace at Pelican Bay
I counted thirty very active guards on B yard at Pelican Bay State Prison. I was a few minutes late for chapel because my commute was held up by two bull elk locking horns on the highway so I didn’t pay much attention to the scurrying activity. I unpacked my horn before service and greeted the trustees setting up chairs. Normal as normal can be. A sudden whistle interrupted our opening hymn, based on the vocal qualities we were exhibiting I half thought the alarm was for violating aesthetic qualities.
Face down roll call means the volunteers must stand against an outside wall and basically keep quiet as the guards count the inmates who are all directed to face away from what ever incident garnered the guard’s response. A tall young man was being led away, in cuffs and leg irons, protesting all the way to his heavily armed escorts. A few minutes later we were back in chapel singing another song, in slightly better voice. Maybe we just needed to warm up. No sooner had we turned the page when whistle number two had us back in face down roll call. I made a little joke to the other volunteer that the guards seemed especially vigilant, he told me, in such a casual voice that I hardly heard what he said, that an inmate had been murdered on A yard the previous week so protocols were a little heightened.
I came back into chapel, after the all clear, trying to process the all in a day’s work attitude all around me with the suddenly intrusive knowledge that prison, our prison, is a dangerous place. In the six years or so that I had been visiting Pelican Bay I knew of two inmate on inmate murders and one guard on inmate non-fatal shooting. The safe walls of the chapel and the genuine joy of gathering with believers blotted out the violent reality that I, as an outside visitor, am shielded of during monthly visits. Usually.
A maximum security prison houses inmates that have either been too dangerous themselves at other facilities, or need extra protection for their own safety. I never ask how the men who come to chapel happened to come to Pelican Bay, but I asked a question to start our service. “Is there any way serving time in prison might be spirit led and not just a consequence of illegal activity?” I didn’t expect much response, after all the quickest way to bring an audience to silence is to ask if anyone has any questions.
The elder in our group, meaning the only man there older than me, said it is hard to call being incarcerated a Godsend, but he never knew God before and now he did so maybe it was Spirit that led him to the block. Another voice from the back said “Doing the right thing, especially in the wrong place, is something we’re called to do, so that must be part of the plan. But it ain’t easy.”
We took turns reading the Scripture of the day, Romans 8:31, “IF God be for us, who can ever be against us?” and talked about spiritual opposition, cultural violence, and taking, what one of the trustees called, “a pliable stand” for having faith. “Acting all holier than thou is a good way to spoil everything.” The end of the paragraph in Romans rolls off calamity, hunger, destitution, danger, persecution, and even death as being no match for the spiritual victory of love.
It suddenly became imperative to tell each inmate, man to man, that I loved him. They told me the same and then huddled up to pray for my safety and my family’s well being. I learned upon coming home, the murdered inmate, age 57, had four months left of a twelve year sentence and was killed by two prisoners, half his age, already serving life terms. An investigation is open.
The question of searching our hearts for love, compassion, and forgiveness is the center of every chapel service we hold at Pelican Bay. Over any typical weekend 30-35 or so inmates, out of 3500, attend a chapel service. If you add in the other faiths represented the number of worshipers tops out at about 10% of the general population. The hope in the yard is the peace we study will root and spread because that would really be good news. That would be the Gospel.