Images above and below are from the NYCHS webmaster's 2006 photos
of Rikers' closed penitentiary (aka JATC) inmate chapel. They do not appear
in the book but are added in this presentation because the book mentions the chapel.
. . . . An urgent and haunting appeal for the kingdom rises up out of situations of suffering and darkness.
“The hardest moment of the day for me is the moment of waking in the morning and finding myself here,” one Rikers Island inmate told me one morning.
This man carried with him, written on his face, immense failure. He talked of his constant desire to sleep. As a child, he had been tied up by his father and left under the kitchen sink. He had no friends; they all abandoned him. The mother of his two children was psychologically and morally fragile.
He was haunted by the thought of losing her. He then went from his own situation to that of the world and linked his lot with that of the multitude of imprisoned people. With what he saw in our world — the inequalities and frustrations, even in the midst of wealth, the abject poverty and so forth — he knew that most people were sick at heart. He said:
“The more I reflect on it, the more I think that at least 90 percent of the people are also in prison. Their lives are fettered by countless things.”
In prison ordinary life does not exist. Or rather, what is ordinary is abnormal to those outside.
One prisoner told me: “I have no fear of God. In my case I listen to nobody but myself. To kill is nothing for me. I just think about myself.”
Prison is a concentrated human jungle; and this anti-kingdom renews itself day after day. Crisis reigns.
It is a hell of anger, where everything is important but the importance of life itself . . . .
There is a fatal fight in a cellblock or a suicide in a cell. And afterward, after the report has been dutifully made, a sanitation crew mops up the blood on the floor.
There is no mourning, no official comment. The only remembrance perhaps are prayers in the chapel. The jail remains.
In the face of such horror, the only true relief is the joy that comes from living in the kingdom. It is a precious, hard-earned joy. . . . .
Indeed, I have seen the kingdom coming at Rikers through the very words of the prisoners themselves:
“When I pray I am in shape”
“In the past, I didn’t go to mass. Now I am anxious to go.”
“God, I give my soul, but without any guarantee on my part. Keep it with you.”
And on Ash Wednesday a prisoner asked me: “I am going to court today. Please give the ashes to my brother. He is incarcerated here. And he will give them to me when I come back from the court.”
Such words, in a place where everything seems lost, are the result of countless graces. His kingdom is truly coming. Our work and his gift meet. . . .
. . . . Do we not see a connection between the “night” of prison and the “night” of the spirit?
While it would be unrealistic and quite naive to find evidence of such connection everywhere, the sweeping away in prison of many illusions and possessions brings out, with a clarity rarely found elsewhere, the value and freshness of the Gospel.
As a volunteer who came to join our Christian community on Rikers said to me:
The moment when we hear the words of faith in all their naked truth is a most important one, for it is the blessed first step in living them. . . .
In the chapel in the maximum security building, the old House of Detention [formerly HDM, now JATC], on Rikers Island, there are [were] green plants around the altar and at the back of the church.
They add an element of peace, life and brightness.
They help people understand that what happens in the chapel transcends everything, even the routine toleration of the administration, which is obliged under state law to include within the walls of prisons a place of worship.
One morning, Henry, an inmate of several months who has never missed mass, joyfully showed me new blossoms on the plants:
“These have almost no fresh air. Nevertheless they find a way of producing blossoms. That’s a good sign. We, too, lack air. They show that there is hope for us.”
He had told me earlier that prayer helped him more than anything else in this place. It was clear he was not afraid, that his days in exile were filled with God and he was living in God.
Another inmate said of Henry: “People like him create a new atmosphere for you.”
Though filled with courage and endurance, Henry did not deny his trials. But because he wanted God’s will on his side, he was able to transform those trials. His was a school of peace and hope.
Without knowing it, he too was producing flowers. . . . .
. . . . This awesome encounter with God was made clear to me one morning as a group of teenage prisoners came to mass in the chapel.
They had just been transferred from one facility on Rikers Island to the Maximum Security Prison.
These young prisoners were being punished for offenses inside the prison; consequently, the Department of Correction was taking special and rather extensive security measures.
The group was under close guard when they came to us for the religious service.
This was an event, a precious moment, which a video could have kept magnificently alive.
Faced with these young people, we had to do everything we could to open a door for them and join them in welcoming life.
Immediately captivated, even fascinated, and fully attuned to us, these “criminals” put off their armor in the chapel.
They had no need to grind their teeth or cope with fear.
The silence, the light, the colors, everything that helped to identify the place and its objects as sacred, were for them a hitherto unknown or long forgotten pathway.
Wisdom and peace advanced toward them and they responded.
Their intensity revealed a great deal about the importance of a setting, an environment that influences choices.
In this setting prayer could move easily, naturally and authentically.
It was not something strange or forced.
The response of these young people also said a great deal about how open we have to be, how sensitive to the depths of a cry that is long buried.
As in the age of the cathedrals, when faith was as visible as the very stones, these "young wolves” dried their eyes and rediscovered the word respect.
Forgotten were the security measures and all the tensions created by surveillance.
Even the tour commander said of the occasion: “I find it restful to be here.”
The living water of faith had its opportunity. It was possible, in this sacred place, for these young men to be fed with real food.
Our little community had its thirst quenched and “left” the prison entirely free and full of dignity.