“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
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.