Brother behind bars

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After passing a succession of security checkpoints, I hear two layers of iron doors slam behind me with hideous blows. Entering the barren “upper yard,” I notice, out of the corner of my eye, a correctional officer above me in the guard tower. A volunteer escorts me across a short walkway to the Catholic chapel for Sunday morning Mass. This is my first visit to the nearby state prison. My heart is pounding in my throat, my mind is numb. What am I doing here?

The chapel has a stiff 1950s layout. Men in orange jumpsuits have just finished the morning’s Communion service (“orange” status means these inmates are waiting to be transferred from here to one of California’s 32 state prisons). I am too self-conscious to greet them, even with a look. I glance away, afraid to read what their faces might reveal.

Now the “blues” file in, regular prisoners in state-issued blue jeans and blue denim shirts. My host, a fellow Franciscan brother who has invited me into this world of incarceration, introduces me to those inmates who help in the chapel. In my “uniform” of brown Franciscan robes, I shake their hands and mumble cordial remarks. My thoughts are on the men themselves. They look so young. Many aren’t even 30 yet. What senseless act has gotten them locked into this pit?

Mass begins. My host, who has volunteered here for years, is right: The music is awful. A small group of prisoners form a choir, fumbling with unsure musical entrances, belting out a dated repertoire. They sound terrible. They need help. My fellow friar gently prods me: “Maybe you’d consider coming in now and then.”

After Mass I chat for a long time with the choir’s director, who learned to play guitar in prison and whose repertoire is limited to the hymns that previous prisoners have taught him. He and the choir are hungry to learn new songs. Without help from the outside, the music here will remain poor. Worse than poor—miserable.

I have degrees in liturgical music and theology. As a musician with plenty of experience with church choirs, I know I can help. Hesitantly I say yes to my friar-brother’s invitation. Never before has such a small decision so transformed my outlook on church, on freedom, and on my vocation as a brother.

As a religious brother for more than 15 years, with extensive parish and retreat center experience, no other ministry has transformed me as much as being “brother” with the imprisoned. My understanding of church, as a community where the outcast are welcome, is just one example. The prisoners have also taught me to pray for both victims and offenders. They have motivated me to speak out for sentencing and prison reform.

Most important, as I have become “brother” to those who are incarcerated, these men have challenged me to say yes to the vocation God has given me. They’ve moved me toward the inner freedom to be a brother in every sense of the word. How strange. I started volunteering in prison because the choir needed training and repertoire. In turn, this choir taught me how to become free.

Volunteering at the prison has not been easy. The choir proved to be one of the most untrained groups with which I’ve ever worked. In addition, restrictive prison policy hampers our accessibility to one another, and occasional “lockdowns” make scheduling unpredictable. Yet my treks there have grown familiar. What initially was going to be one visit a month became frequent Saturday evening rehearsals—to teach the choir new songs and to enjoy my new “parish” community.

Apart from practicing music, a few of the inmates have confided in me, bit by bit, about their experience of incarceration. I have gotten to know men serving time for robbery, kidnapping, and murder. Their stories of endurance and conversion would inspire any of us.

But what has most impressed me has been the choir’s witness as a faith community. This ragged crew of felons, in many ways dehumanized by the prison system, tells all of us what it is to be church. They move me toward a greater sense of brotherhood, inviting me to honestly live my vocation.

Another world
Let me start with what happens when a man enters the prison. He is segregated according to race. Blacks are kept with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Asians with Asians, whites with whites. The prison makes sure a man’s “cellie” is the same race. When he leaves the cacophony of the five-tiered 420-cell beehive, he probably will eat all his meals with his own kind in the chow hall. In the “lower yard,” he will spend time recreating with his own kind.

Among prisoners themselves, overfamiliarity with inmates of another race is treated with suspicion. Showers are segregated. Haircuts and barbers are segregated. The system just works better that way. Enormous tension exists in these institutions when there has been violence between men of different races.

In contrast, the prison’s Catholic chapel is an alternative world. The clerk is Latino; sacristy preparations are shared by a Mexican and a Caucasian. They and other volunteers come early to set up before the arrival of the chaplain, a soft-spoken elderly priest from Ireland. The choir instrumentalists are three guitarists—Hawaiian, Filipino, and Mexican—a Vietnamese bass player, and an African American percussionist. The choir members help each other pronounce the words to Spanish songs. (Mass is bilingual because so many “parishioners” do not speak much English.) A religious sister and other volunteers come regularly and join the Sunday music ministry.

A vision of community
When I first entered the prison in 1998, I expected to meet coldhearted, tough-talking monsters. To my surprise, the men in the choir can be comical and playful and enjoy teasing one another. Yet outside the chapel, I notice they are much more reserved. Security officers are watching. In the yard, ethnic peer pressure confines and restricts their lives. Outside the chapel they must separate into their racial quadrants; in the chapel on Sunday morning they are free to embrace and express the gospel hope they commonly share.

In the world of “free” people, I hear stories of another type of confinement: Cultural groups in Catholic parishes squabbling over the use of facilities, over who celebrates which devotional feast days, over who is in power and who is not. Ethnic choirs have no reciprocal relationships, unable to find ways to worship in common. Immigrants and refugees do not feel welcome by the dominant culture that controls the church property. Outside the prison where I visit, people are shackled by racial stereotypes and prejudices.

What if our parishes of “free” people were a refuge from such narrowness and bigotry? What if people of different languages and cultures yearned for their shared Sunday worship? Christ embraces all, hence we also must embrace all. When I go behind the locked gates of that California prison, about twice a month, I get one vision of a community journeying toward that type of freedom.

Saint Francis of Assisi wanted his followers to be “brother” to all, especially to those cast off by society. The founder of my community had his early followers spend time at the local leper colony, serving and tending to the needs of the outcasts of his day. They were living the gospel in the simple ways they could: feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting those imprisoned.

I had always presumed that such acts of charity were done to benefit the unfortunate. But the poor and marginalized, our sisters and brothers, have their own journey to share and witness. Maybe that is why Jesus commands us to reach out to the “other” (Matt. 25), to those beyond our safe Catholic institutions, that we ourselves may be converted. 

Adapted with permission from an article in The Way of St. Francis.
Brother Rufino Zaragoza, O.F.M. currently serves as the liturgical music consultant for Saints Simon and Jude Catholic church.




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