MY MOTHER is a good, Anglican, Church-in-Wales-going woman who, when the possibility of my being ordained first arose, exhibited some nervousness. A few years ago, however, when I told her I was heading for prison ministry full-time, she said she was relieved. “Why?” I asked. “Because you are not very good at being a parish cleric,” she replied. Grateful as I professed myself to be for her candid response, my inward reaction was rather different.
I’ve since discovered, however, that my present job has given her great cause for hilarity with unsuspecting folk. When acquaintances, or friends of hers, ask after me, she wryly responds, “Oh, she’s in prison. . .”
NOT much in prison is DIY. There is very little anyone — prisoner or staff member — can actually do for themselves. Each part of the community relies on others to play its best, for the whole thing to work. There are few technologies to make our lives any easier: no direct-line phones; no Zoom.
The pandemic has enforced a return to simpler times. With no gathering for corporate worship in person, and no audio-visual kit available to provide an alternative, weekly interaction has been reduced to a simple leaflet with a short reflection on the readings of the day: something that can lift the imagination beyond the confinement of spending up to 23 hours a day in a room with a lavatory, and place the individual in the perspective of God’s wider world, if only for a while.
Each leaflet is individually named and addressed, and delivered to the door of its recipient. Woe betide me if it doesn’t arrive! But, unlike feedback at the church door on a Sunday morning, my weekly response is now based on the number of typos I managed this week. I console myself with the thought that at least the leaflet’s being read.
WHENEVER a hand-written envelope arrives with my name on it, it fills me with terror. What have I done? Whom have I offended? But the contents are sometimes a surprise. As prison chaplains, we are often involved when prisoners are at a loss about what they can do. We become what I have always seen deacons as being — bridges: individuals who can be the conduit between Church and the edges of society. In a prison context, we may be bridges between home and family; between the living and the dying.
At the start of the pandemic, the father of one of the toughest and most notorious and intimidating individuals in our community was dying in hospital. There was no way of enabling them to meet. We had offered a video call, but the hospital could not facilitate it. So we kept a contact with the hospital staff and family members via the phone. Within ten days, the father had died.
Some weeks later, an envelope arrived on my desk. The card inside it read, “. . . this can be a lonely place and I felt so much support, and good talks, and advice, and comforting. . . thank you. P.S. I was totally wrong about you and I take everything back! Ha ha!”
Without these walls
I AM hopeless at time off, although it does provide a chance to catch up with stuff — not just domestic chores, but also social media, and the connections that are harder to maintain when I’m working. In one hit, today, three separate interactions have highlighted opportunities for the distinctive diaconate — for those who understand themselves as go-betweens, with a special responsibility to cross boundaries, make connections, and bring the message of the gospel to the unchurched.
Perhaps the Holy Spirit is highlighting our need, as a Church, for people who are willing to be visibly part of its family and at the same time comfortable working with those in the marginal places of our world. I’d never thought that would be me — but perhaps also that’s what comes from being open to the unlimited possibilities of God’s good purposes.
One bread, one body
FOOD in prisons is prized, not only by prisoners, but by staff, too. If free food is on offer, the scene will resemble bees around a honeypot. Both staff and prisoners, if they want to cook for themselves, have to be innovative with the limited provisions available. I have seen some very interesting “curries” come out of kettles, and dessert creations emerge from residential-unit fridges.
As a team, we recognise the significance of food in all our faiths and cultures; so one of our big treats is to share food together — not eating our own meals alongside each other, but all of us eating the same food at the same time. Halal and kosher diets and other religious observances have all been catered for with only a microwave, toaster, and electric griddle.
When we eat together, differences are forgotten and joys are shared as we recognise in each other a communal nature and spirit. The one thing that prison ministry has taught me is that, wherever and whoever we are, we are all humans who experience the same emotions, even if, for the time being, we find ourselves laying our heads in rather different places.
The Revd Sarah Gillard-Faulkner, is a Distinctive Deacon, and the Anglican Chaplain of HM Prison Onley, Northamptonshire.