Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"...I was in prison and you visited me," a blog post by our Seminarian, Tim Yanni

“I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in

prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36, NRSV.

I am in my final weeks of seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in

Berkeley, California. As my final semester wraps up, I find myself facing a whirlwind of

emotions. Some of the emotions come at the realization that I will be leaving this place

which has been my home for the last three years. Others come at the realization that I

will be parting ways with my classmates and we will each be going our own separate

directions in life. Some of us may never see each other again. While I expected these

emotional triggers, I did not expect the emotional response I felt when I walked away

from San Quentin State Prison for the final time.

Through the graces of the Graduate Theological Union, of which CDSP is a part,

I took an elective class about prison ministry. The course is offered by the Jesuit School

of Theology of Santa Clara University. The course was taught by the Jesuit chaplain at

San Quentin, Fr. George Williams. As a requirement of the course, I spent several hours

each week at the prison. I must admit, spending time at San Quentin has changed my

life in ways I never could have expected.

San Quentin is one of the most notorious prisons in the country. It’s one of those

prisons people know by name. It’s in the category of Folsom, Sing Sing, Huntsville Unit,

and the now-closed Alcatraz. If you are doing time at San Quentin, it isn’t because you

have been convicted of a traffic violation. To go to San Quentin, home to California’s

750 death row inmates, you probably committed a pretty violent crime. If you are doing

time at San Quentin, there is a possibility you one day may be executed for your crimes

and an even stronger possibility that you will never be released to set foot outside its

tan, concrete, razor-wire- fortified walls. As a prisoner in the California Department of

Corrections and Rehabilitation, you have very few privileges, very little privacy, and in

many cases, very little hope.

“But Tim,” you might say. “Why would you waste your time going out there and

talking to these guys? They are criminals. They deserve to be punished.” This is a

loaded question and the answer is equally as loaded. I have been asked this very

question by peers, by prison guards, and by community members. What this question

indicates to me is that there is much work to be done in the field of prison ministry. The

shortest (and in my opinion best) answer to this question is straight from the Gospel of

Matthew. As Christians, it is not uncommon to discern those tasks to which Christ calls

us. However, there are a few tasks Jesus specifically tells us we are to do. We are

called to visit those who are in prison. This is not a suggestion. It is simply not optional.

What I have discovered about myself over this experience is that I had been

called to bring a face of humanity to the people who are stuck behind bars at San

Quentin. They are humans. They experience human emotions. As we are told in the

Book of Genesis, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he

created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV). We are also told,

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31,

NRSV). This doesn’t tell us God made some people in his image. It also does not tell us

that God said some of creation is good. God made us—all of us—in his image. And God

said his creation—all of his creation— is good.

An inmate recently asked me, “Tim, why do you never ask me why I’m in here?” I

told him I thought it would be rude and intrusive to ask.

He said, “No. I want you to ask my why I’m in here.”

Believing I was calling his bluff, I said, “Ok, great. Then why are you in here?”

He said, “I’m in here for first degree murder. I killed my ex girlfriend.” I felt chills

run through my entire body and it took everything I had to keep from making a physical

reaction. This inmate needed to share his story. As his chaplain, it was my obligation to

receive it. He gave me gruesome details of his crime. He told me he was sentenced

“200 years to life.” He will never get out of prison. What was most troubling to me was

that he committed his crime before I was even born. He has spent my entire lifespan

behind bars at San Quentin.

In a group discussion one evening, I came to the realization that I was the only

person in a group of seven men who had never committed a murder. I sat in a circle,

face to face, within arms reach of six convicted murderers. Where is God? I wondered.

What am I doing here? Why am I wasting my time with these guys? This wondering

came to a head when one of the men said he would kill again if someone harmed one of

his family members. I felt hopeless for him. I felt scared. What is this guy capable of

doing to me if he decides he doesn’t like me? I walked through the gates, back to the

car, and crossed the Richmond Bridge back to Berkeley that night and I didn’t say a

word to my classmates who drove with me. I had trouble sleeping that night.

Several days later, I attended the Catholic mass, which was presided over by Fr.

Williams. At the mass, I had a very different experience. I looked around at a gathering

of men, all dressed in prison-issue blue shirts and pants. Most of them sang, many of

them raised their hands in prayer, and some of them danced. The Spirit was alive and

well inside that chapel. What I witnessed on that Sunday morning was a group of guys

who have absolutely nothing. Still, they are madly in love with Jesus Christ and the

grace he brings through the sacraments.

An inmate recently asked me, “Tim, have you ever seen those airplane

commercials? The ones that say ‘Wanna get away?’”

I responded, “Yes, I have seen them.”

He said, “You know what I think, every time I see that commercial?”

“No. What do you think?”

“I think, ‘yep. I sure do,” he said with a laugh. I have to admit, it was a pretty good

joke. What made it funny was that it was very human. I don’t know this man’s crime. But

I know he is a human.

I remember conversations I have had with a man who is 46 years old. He is

incarcerated for a murder he committed when he was 19. He has been in prison for

longer than he had been out of prison. Although he faces the parole board this fall, he

may never go home. His sentence was for life.

I remember conversations I had with a man who changed his name—and his

religion—while incarcerated. As he spoke to the entire group of inmates, he thanked me

by name for spending time with them. “People on the outside need to know we have

human faces,” he said. “Please go out into the world and tell them that we are humans.

It means so much to us to know you are here, even if we don’t get a chance to talk to

you, because it reminds us that you think about us and you haven’t forgotten us.”

Our Christian theology tells us that we are all sinners. Yet some sins carry more

weight than others. I certainly am not perfect and I believe it would be a travesty if I

were known only for the worst action I ever committed in my life. I can’t help but believe

this must be true for everyone. Are there some crimes that require restitution and even

punishment? Certainly. However, must they be carried out without dignity for the human

person? If we are to answer this question in the affirmative, then we are turning our

back on our baptismal covenant.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as

yourself?

People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the

dignity of every human being?

People I will, with God's help. (BCP p. 305)

Spending time inside prison walls is not easy to do. It is challenging. Even though

those living within their walls are humans, made in the image of God, there is still an

aura of the systematic evil which penetrates the prison. There is racism, violence, and

drug use all around in prison. At San Quentin, every time I went, I noticed the

prominence of the exhaust pipe of the gas chamber. I can’t help but think of the lives

that were extinguished in the room directly below the ugly green smokestack. There

have been 215 hangings, 196 gassings, and 11 lethal injections, which have ended the

lives of condemned men and women inside San Quentin. Fifty-six men have died while

awaiting execution at San Quentin since 1976. Fourteen of these deaths were suicides.

I am also reminded of the lives that were ended by the men and women who were

executed there. It feels wrong to kill people to teach them that killing is wrong. There’s

not an easy solution, but I don’t believe the death penalty is a good one.

The reality is that people are broken. All of us are broken. And none of us can be

defined solely by the worst offense we’ve ever committed. It is important to remember

that each of us also has caused pain to other people in our lives. The fact that people

continue to show us love and compassion does not take away from the pain we may

have caused others. The same is true in the criminal justice world. Showing compassion

for the imprisoned does not mean there is a lack of compassion for their victims. It

means that God’s compassion transcends wrongdoing. Our compassion for one another

needs to be visible in the world, inside of prison and outside. If we can work together to

change the hearts of would-be offenders, maybe they won’t end up in prison in the first

place. And if we can bring a little love and a little hope to the people inside the walls,

maybe they will remember that God loves them and does not neglect them.

~ Tim Yanni
The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

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