Over the past three months, I've been spending a lot of time doing prison ministry. Prison ministry is not, for me, what it is for so many other religions. It's not me in there with tie and rolled up sleeves, a copy of the Principia in hand, winning souls for Esus. I'm there by invitation of a member of ADF who has been incarcerated, who cannot find another spiritual outlet within the system.
I find a lot of deep joy in this work, actually. Every time I make the trip (and it's a long drive for me), I find myself going through an interesting range of emotions, but most particularly, I feel privileged to be there for this inmate. I can tell, when I walk in, that this hour I spend will mean more to this individual than the same amount time would mean to any other person I know.
Aside from the occasional other clergyperson (none of whom share the inmate's faith), guards, other inmates, and the occasional visit from a lawyer, I'm the only person who is allowed to be in a room with the inmate, close enough to have physical contact. Even spouses are not allowed into the same room: the movies aren't joking when they show those glass windows and telephones. That's all the contact inmates are allowed with their spouses at the county jail.
The days, as they become warmer, allow for some outdoor exercise for inmates, but the outdoor space at this jail is four very tall walls that open to the sky. The ground is blacktop. Both the inmate and I find that this is an issue for someone with a nature-based spirituality, so I have found a lot of mental exercise trying to figure out how to introduce nature to the prison situation. I decided last night, while picking up flowers for another person, that next time I go up, I'll find the most fragrant and beautiful flowers I can and take them with me. When I come back from Greece, I expect to go up that week and bring in some sort of fresh fruit that we can snack on while we talk. If the experience of the natural world is limited, and I'm a priest in a gosh-darn nature religion, I ought to be able to introduce some nature!
One of the most fulfilling things, though, combines this newest manifestation of my vocation with my oldest: teaching. Completing the DP is going to be problematic, I know, because the books are hard to get (most prison libraries don't stock these). But what the inmate is most interested in is any sort of "mental stimulation" I can offer, so I've been seeking out all sorts of scholarly articles (some of which go far over my own head) and sending those in. So far, I've just been sending 8-or-fewer-page articles (standard rate for postage only allows for about 4 sheets of paper, and I copy or print front-to-back) on a variety of subjects, from rune poems to Hittites to psychological warfare in Vinland. But often I'll receive a specific request, and thus have to do some real deep research to find something (an interest in vampires has led me to looking up all sorts of odd things) and I find myself learning in the process.
I'm currently working on sending Plato's Timaeus out because of an academic interest in Atlantis and where all those odd myths come from. I haven't read that dialogue in years, and it was exciting to go back to both that one and the Critias again.
Perhaps the most interesting thing I've noticed is that being clergy is at least 90% perceived legitimacy. How you dress, how you speak, and how you hold yourself all make interactions with guards vastly different. When I arrive in a suit, I have never been asked even to go through the metal detector: they take me on my word that I'm not doing anything untoward. When I stand there in jeans and a nice shirt, I'm sometimes asked through the metal detector. The one time I was there with jeans and a t-shirt, I was sent through the detector, grilled about what I had on me, forced to lock my personal effects away, and left waiting in the room almost an hour before they let me go home. It's an intersting thing, what affects clergy legitimacy, and this entire process has shown me just how important it is to be perceived as clergy in order to best serve those you're there for: the ordination and the certificate just aren't good enough. I recently bought two new ties because of this perception issue.
But I love to sit across the table, and to hear the intelligent questions about Irish mythology (to which I usually have to say, "I don't know, I'll get back to you on that one."), do divination for things I never thought I'd have to actually think about, and schedule out workings for the inmate in addition to the workings I would normally do for myself. And, once again, knowing that this hour means more to the inmate than any other hour could mean in any other context makes it all worth it.
Three months ago, I signed my name with "Rev." in front of it for the first time at this prison. I used my credentials for the first time. I learned what it was to be "official" clergy. This is my first real clergy "assignment", and while it's been a frightening and dangerous "trial by fire", it's also been one of the most rewarding things I could possibly do.
[Yes, I realize there might be some grammatical no-nos up there, but while I don't mind talking about my prison ministry experience, I have to work hard not to detail anything about the inmate, so I have to find creative ways even to get around pronouns. That's why I haven't mentioned this, even though I've been doing it since late 2006: it's hard, very hard, to maintain confidentiality and still talk about this stuff. I have kept this as a major chunk of my life that isn't shared with anyone except very few ADF clergy members, particularly because this inmate hasn't gone to trial yet, and thus is technically innocent until that point.]