Lyrics and Life
By Caitlin Ward
How Can I Keep From Singing?
My life flows on in endless song,
Through all the tumult and the strife,
While though the tempest loudly roars
When tyrants tremble in their fear
In prison cell and dungeon vile
After months of meetings, discussions, careful planning and orientations, the day had finally arrived: Madeline, one of the campus ministers, and I were taking a cohort of students to the Regional Psychiatric Centre to celebrate Sunday service with the Catholic chaplain, Peter. We had arranged to meet after 11 o’clock mass, get some lunch and drive to the federal correctional institute together for 12:30.
No one had eaten, so Madeline and I wrangled everyone together
and ran and bought a dozen cheeseburgers before herding the cats to the
car. We were getting texts from other students who were coming separately
and didn’t know the way, so there were loads of people in cars
lost in Sutherland, and one student waiting at RPC afraid he’d
gone on the wrong day. I was fielding phone calls and pointing to the
changing lights while Madeline leaned out the car window to say hello
to someone she knew as we stopped on Central Avenue. She made up for
nearly missing the light by going 20 kilometres above the speed limit
the rest of the way.
It was at that point I decided that I would be driving next time.
We arrived at RPC around one, met the three students who’d found
their way there separately, went through security and walked out into
the first courtyard — the one the inmates/patients can’t
go into. Peter stopped us in the yard, showed us the fences and the armed
cars with snipers that circle the prison to stop escaping patients. I
watched one of my students almost crumple when she asked if the snipers
shot to wound, and Peter said gently but very matter-of-factly, “no.
To kill.” I kept my arm around her as we walked into the main building.
We went inside to prepare and talk and eat cheeseburgers.
The patients started arriving just before two, though they’re not supposed to
get there until just before service starts. One man, round and childish
in sweatpants and an oversized T-shirt (we’ll call him Jim), came
a bit early, too, and Peter asked one of the students to help him go
over the first reading. They went out into the hallway and practised
the reading a few times. We started at 2:30, and this student sat beside
me, leaned over and asked, “when is the first reading, again?” I
laughed, and told him about the time I was reading at daily mass and
I was so concerned about going up at the right time that I read the wrong
day’s reading when I got to the lectern. But Peter called on him
and Jim when it was the right time, so they went up and did the first
reading (the right one).
Now, Jim can barely read. His eyes were wide, stuttering
over the easy words and stopping at the hard ones. My student stood beside
him, gently prompting Jim and, when he was done, one of the patients
hand as he walked past and said, “good job there, man.” And
Jim smiled like an angel.
After mass, after coffee with the patients and cleaning
up, Peter took us around to the different wings of RPC, and we went out
to talk about how the day had gone. One of the students, who’d been at mass that
morning with me, said that the first reading had resonated more the second
time she heard it — when Jim did it, struggling over the words, “I
prayed, and prudence was given me; I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom
came to me.” It was the realization for all of us that wisdom is
for these damaged and dangerous men just as it is for the scholarly worshipping
community we had come from that morning.
Peter said he knew Jim would probably never leave RPC,
and it was important for him to find a place here, so he did what he
could to give Jim that place. He wasn’t going to say more than
that, but this student has a knack for asking more questions than she
wants to know the answer to, and so he told us that Jim is a dangerous
offender who does not have the intellectual ability to go through the
rigorous programs that would ever give him the opportunity to leave.
We debriefed, had a coffee and everyone went home.
When I got back to my apartment, I cried for half an hour.
the thing: I looked into the eyes of a man who is the dregs of society,
the worst kind alive. A man I should by all rights despise. Instead,
I saw the face of Christ.
Now, I don’t mean to romanticize a place that holds some who really are the worst of society, but I can tell you this: the prison chaplaincy changes lives, for those inside and those of us who come to minister. Come the end of March 2013, it’ll be gone, because of cuts to the chaplaincy program in the federal prisons. And we will all be worse for that.
Ward is a freelance writer and aspiring documentary filmmaker based in Saskatoon. You can find her short bursts of insight and frustration at http://www.twitter.com/newsetofstrings