Ministry on California’s Death Row – an Ignatian Meditation

By Fr. George Williams, SJ, San Quentin State Prison chaplain

I lift the Blessed Sacrament for the men inside the cage to see. “This is my body, which is given for you.” God is here in this awful place.

The “chapel” on San Quentin’s Death Row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage. There are six wooden benches bolted to the floor for the congregation. I stand outside their cage, having padlocked myself inside my own cage as required by the department, wearing my black bulletproof, stab-proof vest.

There is a harsh fluorescent ceiling light over me, and as I raise the host, the light illuminates it. The men are quiet and focused, and I imagine as I am standing there facing them, separated by the steel mesh and padlocks, that the light of Christ is streaming forth from that host, dispelling the dark shadows of “East Block,” San Quentin’s Death Row for men.

St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, said, “See God present in you just as God is present in a temple. See yourself as God’s own image and divine likeness.” Much of my work with prisoners is to help them see the presence of God in themselves.

The major spiritual illness of most prisoners is shame. At the deepest level, they believe that they are “no good.” Many have learned to identify themselves by what others have labeled them: criminals, murderers, even monsters. This radical sense of being worthless, bad, a “nothing,” lies at the root of most antisocial behavior. I believe we must reject the lie that says we are nothing but the worst sin we have committed.

What they seem to long for the most is forgiveness. As a priest, I bear witness to God’s forgiveness. God’s mercy is greater than our worst sins. The love and mercy of God, expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, makes forgiveness and healing possible for all of us, even the most despised and outcast members of our society.

 

Since my first experiences in prison ministry as a Jesuit novice, I have seen over and over the face of Christ in the prisoners, as well as in those who guard them. Ironically, it is in the darkness of prison that I encounter most vividly the light of God shining forth.

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