I wrote this as a reflection paper for Fr. Geo Williams during my participation in his Prison Ministry class, after my very first visit to a prison, but I feel it still holds true, now some years later.
I am using ministry and chaplaincy as interchangeable terms in this paper.
My Theology of Prison Ministry/Chaplaincy
In some ways, chaplaincy is a call to work with prisoners no matter the field. Difficult life transitions often make a person feel imprisoned in their circumstances. They look to chaplains and ministers as a means of lightening the spiritual burden they feel.
In this way I see prison ministry/chaplaincy utilizing all the tools of chaplaincy. Though I hope that presence will help the person in front of me, more important than is the hope that I can bear quiet witness to whatever is brought forward. I hope that my presence would offer a moment of silence and refuge where the healing, loving spirit of the Divine can be felt and recognized within that person, and that eventually they will be able to sustain their relationship to that God energy in their moments of trial and tribulation. To me chaplaincy is not so much a bringing of anything as much as a reflecting back of what exists in all beings.
Prisoners within the physical prison are not exempt from this Divine Inheritance any more than the Dalai Lama or a Pope or any commoner outside of prison is. In my eyes and heart I believe they have undoubtedly had a lot of suffering even before they were involved in crime.
This belief opens me up to a greater sense of compassion. I cannot judge them, or anyone in any setting I might be ministering to. Michael Pritchard, well known speaker and educator of teens, says “Hurt People Hurt People.” Every inmate has affected a person, family or community by his or her crime. Every inmate has, at some point had dreams that were crushed. The suffering ripples out and touches so many. A deep and tragic interconnection of suffering exists for every inmate.
When we offer our compassionate presence with the inmates, we must also expand our inner prayers and witness to this greater number of suffering souls. The prisoners in prison have lost the rite to freely reconcile their pain and the pain they have caused others. It is up to us as people doing prison ministry/chaplaincy to help them see that they have not lost the rite to a home in God’s love.
As a prison chaplain, it is helpful to always remember that we are all prisoners in some way, and we all want to be assured of this home, this place in heaven too. By remembering this we can see our role more as walking side by side on the same path. We want the same thing, but we as “outsiders” have the luxury (or burden!) of pursuing a wider variety of “earthly” goals. Some of our prayers for achievement of goals in the physical world might be answered, whereas for the inmates, this potential earthly fruit of prayer is not available. They have lost out on the kingdom on earth as they wanted it. To be assured that they still do and always did have a place in heaven or God’s love now and eternally might well be the only thing that can bring them to a place of inner peace.
This makes our role as ministers even more important when companioning an inmate towards a greater experience of spirit and love. By our willingness to see ourselves as equal to them we can assure them that they are not alone or forgotten. By our willingness to walk and engage with them in their suffering, rejection, and loss, we can offer them the blessing of being seen as whole people, even in their brokenness.
Another aspect of prime importance in prison ministry/chaplaincy is a commitment to constant and regular maintenance of healthy boundaries. This is true in any pastoral work, but working with prisoners has different elements. Similar to what I have learned in working with the homeless, I need to be able to witness my own needs or issues getting in the way of quiet presence. I need to be prepared to witness hard stories that may induce graphic images, and be prepared to keep them on the outside of myself, while keeping an open heart.
One way I can work with this is to set a clear intention each time I enter the prison. I must acknowledge the extent that violence, anger, hatred and other negative energies live within the prison walls and must take measures to keep from taking on that negativity. Likewise, psychological occurrences like transference, counter-transference and projection need to be identified and dealt with right away. It would be helpful as well to have a peer-support group such as a CPE group and/or a Spiritual Director or therapist if needed.
It is core to my personal theology that all suffering is a means of fostering an understanding of interconnectedness. Uniting with others through our suffering offers us the salve of transforming our individual suffering as well as the suffering of others. NOT offering this salve to people who have been locked away for a crime or injustice is the greater injustice. For this reason I feel that in prison ministry/chaplaincy should be prioritized and accepted as requirement of all faith traditions.