Worshiping with the Church Behind the Walls

I went to prison recently to worship Jesus Christ with the inmates. San Quentin State Penitentiary allows church groups to volunteer in their chapel services. I attended the Protestant Sunday night service with one of those groups. This was the first time I had ever been in a prison as well as the first time I worshiped with men serving their sentences. When I worked for the Salvation Army in a rehabilitation center, I would worship weekly with men on probation and parole.

I do not want to communicate that because I went into the prison for one night I am somehow an expert on the criminal justice system or the spiritual life of the inmates. If anything, my experience showed me how little I know, but it also gave me a desire to learn more. Take this post as a reflection of a first-time volunteer. Several of the people I went with have been ministering in San Quentin for many years. They have forged trusting relationships with the men there that can only come from consistent encounter.

California builds most of its prisons far away from major metropolitan areas, making San Quentin unique as it sits in Marin County, overlooking San Francisco Bay. I wanted to visit San Quentin when I ministered in Fremont, but was never able to do so. Friends in my current congregation began attending worship services last year. They shared their overwhelmingly positive experiences, giving me a small sense of what to expect.

I want to avoid the twin errors of romanticizing the experience and refusing to see the men beyond their legal status as convicts. In the orientation for first-timers, our leader said the chapel service would look and feel like a normal worship service. He said the congregation would be like any other Christian body, comprising devout Christ-followers, nominal Christians, seekers, and some folks who attend just to get out of their cells for a couple hours. The congregation would differ from churches outside the prison in two significant ways. First, the congregation would be entirely male. Second, the all the congregants would wear prison uniforms.

Our leader described what would happen as, “The Church beyond the walls going to worship with the Church behind the walls.” We were not bringing the good news to people who had never heard of Jesus before. Rather, the Holy Spirit has been active in that community for decades. Our ministry to the men was one of fellowship, letting them know through our presence that their brothers and sisters in Christ outside the prison love them.

We approached the first gate of the prison where we underwent another identity check. The prison has to clear all volunteers prior to arriving, but some folks have been turned back anyway. Then we walked across the employee parking lot to the main entrance of the prison proper. Again we signed our names and showed our identification. Guards waved a metal detector at us and ushered us through the sally port. Having operated since 1852, the prison is a hodgepodge of architecture and technology. It still appears foreboding despite also looking like something schoolchildren would tour on an historical field trip.

Inside the main courtyard our leader pointed out the buildings. In the distance were the main cell blocks. In front of us was the new hospital ward. To the left of us was the “Adjustment Center,” or solitary confinement. Off to the right were the chapels where the men began to gather in the sanctuary. (Services for Roman Catholics, Protestant Spanish speakers, and some non-Christians [Buddhists?] gathered at the same time in different rooms.) As we approached the sanctuary, the men began to greet us. I have not been to such a welcoming and friendly congregation in a long time. The men showed genuine interest in meeting me and knowing my name. As we entered the sanctuary, I was reminded of chapel services I attended when I worked in a Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, where most of the men in recovery were on probation or parole. We volunteers could not sit among the men, but had to sit together up front for safety reasons.

People will ask whether I felt safe. Guards were not in the chapel. I still felt safe, thanks in large part to the stories I heard from my friends who previously volunteered at the prison. To attend chapel services, the men must be on good behavior. Sure, I initially wondered for what crimes these men were convicted. As the service progressed, I found myself drawn into worshiping God with my brothers in Christ, not worrying about my safety.

The worship service did progress like any normal worship service, although no offering was taken. The inmate choir first led us in songs and then our group led a couple songs. There was a time of sharing testimonies and prayer requests. We read Scripture. A pastor with our group preached a sermon. Then we mingled for a bit afterward. I had some great conversations with the men, hearing a bit about their lives. One asked me to pray for him as his parole hearing was approaching. Another described his studies to me.

One of the inmates offered a prayer in the service. As he came to the pulpit, he addressed the congregation as, “Saints.” This word surprised me, revealing my prejudices about these men. But as we prayed, I realized he was right. We have deemed these men too dangerous to be a part of the rest of society, perhaps with good reason in certain cases. We have reduced them to the status of criminals and convicts. When our society looks at them, we can only see the crimes for which they are sentenced. The Holy Spirit sees these men differently. They are made in God’s image, people for whom Jesus loved so much that he died to set them free from their sin. They may wear the clothes of convicted men, but Christ is setting them free and changing them. Saints is right.

I went on Pentecost Sunday and while no one made mention of the Christian holiday, I couldn’t help but reflect on the birth of the Church. The author of Acts tells us the followers of Jesus were shut up in a house in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit burst through the walls and began speaking through the disciples in different languages. God truly is no respecter of persons or walls. The Holy Spirit climbed over the walls and made his home in San Quentin. Aside from some first-hand accounts I’ve read and heard, I don’t know what daily life is like in prison. I imagine that it often seems like a God-forsaken place to the inmates. And yet the Spirit’s presence was evident as we worshiped together on Sunday night. What is more, it was clear the Holy Spirit has been active in the prison for a long time.

As I reflected on my time in San Quentin I also realized that these men relate to God in ways I cannot. I wondered, what must it be like to read the story of Moses, who killed a man, when one has committed murder? I imagine the prison letters of Paul, like Philippians, ring true on deeper levels for those serving long sentences. A Bible commentary written by inmates would be a wonderful gift to the Church.

I cannot speak to the ethnic composition of the other chapel services, but the congregation of the Protestant chapel was almost entirely black. I could not help but think of Michelle Alexander’s argument in her book, The New Jim Crow, that the current criminal justice system—particularly, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration—has created a system of social control based on race that has led to a caste-like system. As I worshiped with my brothers, I was aware that even those who would one day be released would forever be disenfranchised in many ways. I wonder, when one commits a felony, at what point is his debt to society paid?

I was also struck by how bureaucratically difficult it is to minister to our brothers in prison. We had to undergo background checks. As volunteers we were not to foster friendships with the men beyond the chapel. I was not to give out my name and address, nor was I to take their names and addresses. That is, I cannot write to anyone I met. I cannot return to the prison to visit any of the men on an individual basis. The prison system distinguishes between visitors and volunteers and makes sure the two never mix. If I were to start writing to one of my brothers in prison, I would no longer be a volunteer and would become a visitor. I then could not attend chapel services. I am sure there are valid reasons for these boundaries, but it saddens me that our society makes it so difficult to share God’s love with prisoners.