By Matthew Spotts, SJ
The day before Passion Sunday in 2018, I was in charge of the Catholic communion service on California’s “condemned row.” I strapped on a security vest, picked up our large Mass and communion service kit, and followed my escort to East Block, which houses the largest segment of California’s prisoners who have been sentenced to death. I walked back to death row’s “chapel.” For services, I stand in one cage and the prisoners in an adjoining cage, separated by a sturdy steel barrier.
On that particular day I was joined by only one other prisoner. The prisoners take turns coming to services, and ordinarily this group would have many more attendees at service. However, security concerns and other variables make it difficult to predict attendance at religious services, both on death row as well as with “mainline” prisoners. So, I and my congregation of one prayed together and then, ahead of the beginning of Holy Week the next day, we read the Passion together. The significance was not lost on me. Here, surrounded by people made in God’s image who were imprisoned and awaiting execution, we read the story of God who became human and was also arrested, imprisoned, and taken to be executed.
As we concluded, the man was visibly moved, wiping tears from his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just…there’s no place in my life I get to be like this. And hearing the story of Jesus in the same place was just…” A lot was left unsaid there, which is probably for the better. He and Jesus had shared something together in a way that I probably could not have even understood even if the man had been inclined to discuss it further. We waited, and when the time was right, we prayed the Our Father and he received communion through a small hole in the steel wall that separated us. God’s gifts for God’s people. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
I have spent more than two years in the Catholic chaplaincy at San Quentin, alongside the Catholic chaplain, Fr. George Williams, SJ. During that time, my tasks have varied widely. I have done a lot of work with the “mainline” prisoners, who are usually prisoners serving long sentences for a variety of offenses. I have taught RCIA, served as deacon at the lively Sunday Masses, and done cell-front ministry. In the midst of all these ministries, time and again I have rediscovered the truth that was on display at the beginning of Holy Week on death row: God is already at work in extraordinary ways with the prisoners. My work usually is nothing more (but also nothing less) than cooperating with what God is already doing. We Jesuits often talk, rightly, about going to the margins, of serving those places, as Pope Benedict put it, “particularly to reach those physical and spiritual places which others do not reach or have difficulty in reaching.” However, as has so often been the case in my life as a Jesuit, when I arrived at those “hard to reach” places at San Quentin, I found God already present and at work.
In that sense, the chaplaincy at San Quentin has been the perfect school of the heart for me and for many other young Jesuits over the years. For my part, San Quentin has been a perfect place to be formed as I approach ordination to the priesthood. The prisoners with whom I work often carry tremendous pain and brokenness, both from their lives before prison as well as from the traumas experienced in the prison system. They also carry a deep hunger for Good News that can speak to that pain and have often had profound experiences of God in the midst of brokenness that have given them great spiritual resources. My “professors in blue” have allowed me onto the holy ground of their lives and experiences and in turn have taught me what it means to be a minister, a servant of God who can bring light and healing in the midst of the greatest brokenness.