by Michael Donovan, PBMR, Volunteer Jail Chaplain, Precious Blood Ministry of Reconciliation
“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:1-12).
Following the star in the east until it stopped over the place where the baby Jesus was, the Wise Men presented their gifts and worshipped the child. Following the Interstate Highway system and using GPS, I began my annual Christmas week visits to 9 inmates at 7 prisons throughout Illinois. How I wish I could have brought these young men Christmas presents like Santa Claus on his route, but other than springing for plenty of junk food from the vending machines in the visiting rooms, my pockets were empty. Jail chaplaincy is a ministry of presence, not a ministry of presents.
I am passionate about being there for them, meeting these young men where they are—in this case, prison— and it’s especially profound during the holidays, when they are separated from those they love. I have the privilege of listening to them tell not only their stories of brokenness, loneliness, and regret, but also the stories of their hopes and dreams. While many of the young men are unmarked by a specific religious identity, I am constantly amazed at the importance of spirituality in their lives behind bars. I always leave inspired by their great strength and courage.
This ministry is not dissimilar to hospice ministry. I’m there for the journey, usually from jail to prison to home, and sometimes back to prison again. This ministry does not have a lot of happy endings or success stories as measured by traditional standards.
At the end of these visits, I pray that Arturo would forgive himself; that Allen would finally see that revenge is not the answer; that Derrion would be relieved of his loneliness; that Ali would continue to grow in his Islamic faith, and that he would get the second chance he so desperately wants; that Jerry would adjust to his new surroundings, having just been transferred to this facility; that Alejuandro would be relieved of his worries and anxieties of returning home as a registered sex offender for life; that Deante would somehow get in touch with his young son, whose mother moved with him to another state and left no forwarding address; and that Victor would finally get into GED classes, after being on the waiting list since his incarceration.
One of my planned visits was denied. I got to this prison when the doors opened at 8:30 A.M. The young man had called me two days prior to Christmas to tell me that he received written confirmation that I was on his approved visitor’s list. He had recently transferred to this facility from Western Illinois Correctional Center where I had visited him at least twelve times over a four year period, with no problems. After presenting two forms of identification, I filled out a form required of new visitors. For the line, Relationship to Inmate, I wrote, “Friend,” giving very little thought to the importance of this. Jaimie identified me as his Uncle, not thinking of me, a 61 year old man, as a friend. In fact, in his last letter to me he wrote, “Hope you know that you’re family to me, and I try not to ask you for anything unless I absolutely need it because I know you don’t have to do anything for me. You just do it out of the kindness of your heart.”
This inconsistency between friend and uncle made him a liar in the eyes of the officials of this prison, and despite my protests and appeal to the lieutenant in charge, my visit was denied.
So much for the Christmas spirit.
That setback aside, I was blessed to be an instrument of God’s peace to these young people of goodwill during this Christmas season. Joy to the world!