CR Inside Newsletter

The blog for CR Inside. Much talk about all things CR Inside...

An Ordinary Sunday

As I walk through the parking lot designated for “Visitors,” it hardly seems as if I am a visitor. Standing at the entrance I feel God take my hand and lead me into worship. Just like scenes played out all over the world, millions of believers gather at their places of worship, take that same walk to the front door, are greeted by fellow church members, and select a preferred seat. It is one I have taken for granted at every church gathering. For most of us that walk is free of even a passing look by outsiders, but for thousands of believers in the United States, the walk to the front door of their place of worship is an open act of courage noticed by each person they pass: It is noticed by armed officers, fellow inmates, prison staff, and volunteers. Each one is counted and recounted by officers, mental notes made by onlookers at the gates, who protect the front doors of this place of worship.

On a hot Sunday in August I and four other female prison volunteers who go “inside” several times a week, joined about 100 men for one of five Protestant services at Greystone Chapel inside the high security gates at historic Old Folsom Prison. We were invited guests and were welcomed as such, and I was amazed at the surprising contrasts between that place and my usual Sunday morning experience at church.

I join with these believers in walking out that faith openly, but my walk hardly mirrors theirs. We walk through 120-year-old iron gates that slam shut and lock behind us. We enter a tunnel where we sign in and trade our civilian identification for a formal prison ID. We pass through yet another set of heavy, iron gates that again slam. We are guarded by alarms and personal whistles that sound at the slightest sign of misbehavior from any inmate. We walk within painted lines designated “Staff Only” and inmates scatter as we near. We are protected by armed guards looking on from above. We walk through long cell blocks past hundreds of inmates behind bars who dare not say more than a friendly “Hi.” We skirt the hospital wing, another long cell block, the open shower rooms, uncountable check points, the dining hall made famous by Johnny Cash, and out into the open “yard” where inmates take advantage of their limited time outside. Finally in sight is Greystone Chapel. The chapel appears across the yard where seemingly thousands of men dressed in prison blues and grey gather. The word PRISONER marking their status in this society is emblazoned on every stitch of clothing.

As we approach the front of the chapel, hundreds of inmates spill from its doors as the previous service ends. This is much like what I have seen at the end of services at any of the local mega churches, but here each inmate’s ID is checked as they enter and exit. As we are invited to enter we are greeted by each man with a “Hello Sister” and a welcoming hand shake that replaces the hug I usually receive from fellow believers at my home church. Chaplain Bill, the Pastor for both male and female populations at the prison, greets us and invites us into the church, then quickly retreats to “manage ongoing issues” at the gate. I think about managing the issues on a Sunday morning and am taken back at the thought of a “normal” morning for a pastor at any church outside the gates of prison. The issues in my church usually are along the lines of audio testing and solving computer problems. A smile comes across my face and I silently pray peace and protection over those who enter. An “issue” here can easily escalate to full prison lock-down and hours behind the locked doors and gates of the prison. Computer glitches on a Sunday morning fail to compare.

Upon entry into the main church I am struck by several sights: The first is the reproduction of da Vinci’s “Last Supper” papered across the entirety of the wall behind the pulpit. It is torn by the settling movement of granite blocks, but the beauty is overwhelming. The second sight is the guards on a mezzanine overhead watching carefully over everything in the building. The third is of three office signs painted over three distinct doors and each designating it as an “Office of…” the Jewish Chaplain, Catholic Chaplain, and Protestant Chaplain. The lines of denomination are blurred and this is the church. This is indeed God’s house and His presence provides relief like an oasis in the desert. The men continue to greet us and ask questions out of curiosity. What on earth brings five women to attend a church service in Folsom Prison?

The image that comes to mind is that of a tent where a good old church revival is about to begin. From that tent a light beams out so brightly that it cuts into the darkness of the night sky. That tent – that revival – is being held right in the middle of the darkest corner of Hell.

The room fills slowly and finally the service begins. Old songs from my childhood church experience – simple hymns – rings out from the two-piece band and all join in singing from worn hymnals scattered about the room. Interesting how my heart remembers a favorite hymn from my childhood and, like an involuntary heartbeat, I sing out. As the song ends, there is a loud command: “Choir, please come forward!” A choir made up of six men in matching blue pants and shirts belt out four-part harmony as more hymns that fill the air. On the front of each singer’s shirt and pant leg bold white letters scream out “PRISONER” while songs of freedom float from their mouths. A little chuckle gathers in my throat and the reality of that word hits me: I too am a prisoner in my own right when I choose the ways of this world and ignore stepping into God’s story each day. The irony of the pastor’s message about our walk matching our talk brings conviction. I walked into the prison in freedom. At the end of the day and service, I will go home and back into a “free” country.

As the service ends our group is greeted again by several men. One man, Anthony, introduces himself and announced that he was blessed by our presence on his last Sunday at Folsom State Prison. Many of us quickly assume he is to be paroled or released to a transitional living program. He tells us that after serving 10 years of a Life sentence, he has been exonerated due to advancement in DNA testing that confirmed his innocence. He will leave the prison the following Tuesday. He shared that his faith in Christ never failed and was only uplifted by family, community, and church members who also held his innocence as truth. He told us of promises by his employer to return him to work upon his proof of innocence. Anthony told of how he used to pass a state prison near his home town on his regular work route and prayed that God would show him how he could serve in a prison ministry if that was His plan. It was truly a desire of his heart. A week after that prayer, Anthony was arrested. I still hear his chuckle at the end of telling that story.

What makes this worship, this church, and this place any different than what I usually see? Three things come to mind: The first and most striking is the example of humility. These men of God know exactly how broken they are and do not hide it. There is no reason to deny it; they have been tried and convicted by a jury of human peers. This example is not always present in my experience of the modern Church. Every day these children of God choose to stand up and walk out their baptism in a place where evil plays actively and visibly. They visibly show their belief in the truth that, “For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). They are living proof that the word “Us” means all of us and with no limitations on the word “sin.” Those men, these saints, know that even as society continues to condemn them to a human life in a worldly prison, they are free through the work of Jesus Christ on the Cross. And they show it.

Another highlight that comes to mind is the walk through the prison halls into the chapel. It is the walk that takes prisoners through the hell of daily life in a state-run prison where they do hard time for the sins of their past. It is a walk through endless cell blocks, a yard filled with hate, gangs, rules, and a harsh inmate justice system that condemns even to death for stepping a toe out of line. As I think about my regular walk to church through a parking lot in a quiet, upper-middle class neighborhood, I remember no fear, greetings (or taunts), and no one watching to see my next move. I walk through glass doors instead of chain link, barbed wire fences. I don’t have to check in. No one makes note of my coming and going, and I don’t have to worry about any issues at the door as I leave. I arrive in peace.

Finally, I am struck by sameness. When we came together in worship as believers in Christ, the signs of “Prisoner,” “Volunteer,” and “Visitor”– the signs of difference– disappeared because we were but one body gathered in Christ’s name. In that meeting of saints we were the church gathered to worship Him.

And so I reflect back on the question so many of the prisoner asked us, “What on earth would bring these five women to this place?” I find the answer in this chapel. It is the same thing that brings us all into the body of Christ. It is God’s story as it is played out inside the lives of these men and my choosing to join in His Story where He would have me.