Water (of life) always finds a way
In addition to the challenges on a personal level, the Covid-19 pandemic has involved a steep new learning curve for chaplains in terms of how they interact with prisoners. The access we have to prisons varies widely between countries, all the more so during the health crisis, but in my experience, hearing others’ stories can be a source of hope and encouragement, even when our circumstances differ. So here’s just one simple story from me.
In the prison where I’m chaplain, I would normally have largely unrestricted access to cells in every part of the prison, any day of the week. I enjoy the opportunity to literally get alongside inmates in their living space, drink a coffee with them, see the world from their perspective – and like Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, begin any spiritual journey from right where they are.
Covid has changed all that. At first, for the best part of three months, French chaplains could not visit prisons at all. Now, I’m limited to allocated time slots in different wings of the prison, and instead of going to visit inmates on my own initiative I have to sit in an office, hand a prison officer a list of potential candidates, hope the information travels all the way down the chain to the officer on the wing, that they’ll go and open up the cell in question – and that the inmate will be keen enough to leave their cell and come and join me in my interview room.
Before the first lockdown, I’d been meeting regularly with a guy, let’s call him François, ever since he first arrived; he’s now nearing the end of his sentence for a serious crime. Over the years I’d seen him shift from self-absorbed, immature behaviour to a realisation of the seriousness of his offence, taking responsibility and addressing the personal challenges this entailed for him.
François was one of the first people I tried to see under the new Covid regime. The message came back that he had refused, and preferred to wait out the pandemic on his own. That was a clear statement of something left unspoken by other inmates that I’ve nonetheless sensed: coming in from the outside, chaplains are now often perceived as a threat to their health, rather than as a source of support. I was left with a sense of frustration; and as the pandemic has dragged on (undoubtedly for longer than François had imagined), I’ve often wondered how he was doing.
A few weeks ago, I found myself thinking about François again as I was shown into my visiting room in his block. My mood did not improve as I asked the prison officer to call for one inmate after the other, only to be told, one after the other, that they didn’t want to see me either. What a wasted afternoon. Thoroughly discouraged, I gave up and set out to leave.
On my way out down cell block stairs I passed several inmates coming in the other direction – one of them was François, on his way to a different interview. We were able to spend a few minutes catching up; I heard how he had continued on his path of personal restoration. It was clear that the process of transformation had continued in my absence!
I’m sure many of you can identify with how I felt: suddenly, the entire ‘wasted’ afternoon was worth it. Of course, from a purely ‘human resources’ or ‘time management’ point of view, it was not very efficient! But in chaplaincy I’ve learned to apply the ‘Kingdom of God’ perspective, in which less is often more, the last are first, and it’s the little things, however insignificant in others’ eyes, that really count. And once again, I realise that just as water will eventually find its way through even the tiniest cracks, the Holy Spirit will continue to find his way to hearts despite the many obstacles in his path. Sometimes he even lets me be a part of that process.