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Serving the spiritual needs of individuals in the correctional system is a good fit for those interested in the interfaith spiritual care for individuals and within institutions or systems. Prison ministry puts you in a setting where many religions and spiritual paths may be followed, including none at all. To become an effective prison minister, you need to be willing to work and empathize with inmates, families and staff, embracing any number of belief systems, including agnosticism and atheism.
I heard my calling to prison chaplaincy while sitting in meditation at Open Mind Zen in Melbourne, Florida. Our teacher, Sensei Al Rapaport, had earlier announced that a group of inmates on the other side of the state needed a volunteer to sit with them. I dismissed his invitation, in that I was too new to Zen. But, as I sat in meditation a voice in my head kept saying: “Who do you think that was for? Do I need to send you an engraved invitation?” Within a few weeks, I was cleared by the Florida Department of Corrections and presented myself at Lake Correctional Institution in Clermont.
That was in 2010 and I have never looked back. I now sit with Buddhists, serve as a day chaplain and also as clergy with Kairos Prison Ministries at the Christian prison retreats that are held over several long weekends during the year.
I believe that Jesus calls us to be in communion with the outcasts of society - and few are more outcast than inmates. They are shamed and judged and scapegoated. And some are outcasts within this society of outcasts. And yes, some of them have done some pretty horrible things. But what they have done is not who they are.
Prison chaplaincy is not for everyone. It is a gritty ministry in the midst of suffering. The environment is defined by noise, concrete, iron bars and razor wire. Communication with an inmate in a cell can be difficult and strained. But the rewards can be enormous.
For me, the rewards of prison chaplaincy have been what the inmates have done for me: opening my heart, teaching me about forgiveness, and helping me to reclaim disowned parts of myself.
I have always been attracted to the idea of working within a prison. However I put the idea aside decades ago when I began working within a few monasteries in India and Nepal. I figured that the monastery life was where this interest found its manifestation-and I was ok with that, as it is all good work.
Fast forward to the last year of my M. Div. studies at Starr King School for the Ministry. I needed to find one more class on Fridays and ended up in Father George William’s rigorous Prison Ministry Class. I immediately realized that the spiritual passion I felt working within the Tibetan Buddhist monasteries of was the same passion I experienced working within the monastery of San Quentin State Prison!
Beginning with attending a large weekly group at San Quentin focused on Restorative Justice, my traction there deepened. Because of the restrictions on ministry volunteers at San Quentin (and most prisons for that matter) my work is done within group settings. Usually prisons employ just a few paid chaplains, so to keep things clear, I identify myself as a “ministry intern” rather than a “chaplain intern.” San Quentin is a unique prison because of all the incredible “rehab” programs offered to the inmates, all which focus on developing insight and understanding, spiritual transformation, forgiveness, emotional literacy etc.
For the past year and a half I have been doing in-depth work with dozens of men through a variety of such groups as mindfulness meditation, emotional literacy, veteran support groups, restorative justice groups, violence prevention… As an ordained interfaith minister and chaplain this is such a perfect fit. I have also started a monthly Interfaith Devotional Music night, and have also been involved with a Taoist Group, helped start a Siddha Yoga group, taught on Death and Dying from an Interfaith Perspective, sat with the Buddhists-and there is so much more!
Working within the incarcerated population is a special calling. I honestly feel that I would not be as effective in this calling without a deep commitment to my spiritual practice. As a student of Tibetan Buddhism for 40 years, with a background in Interfaith studies, I can witness and embrace the hard facts and many faces of suffering I encounter in this work without getting bogged down in the stories. This frees me up to shine some light on the often hidden sparks of grace inherent in these lives of hard luck and challenging realities of incarceration.
I feel blessed to have so many opportunities open up for me to walk with Spirit or the Divine in all names and forms to men of all callings and backgrounds. Witnessing the birth of the joys and the pains of the transformation of the soul among such ripe and ready beings is one of the biggest gifts of my life, and is truly a sign of the reality of Bodhicitta at work!
I am ever grateful for CHI and Father Williams for providing me a launching pad to be able to do this good work. I have taken on a new lifetime vow to help change the minds and hearts of the “free people” on the “outside” so that they will honor and receive these transformed global citizens back in the fold of a growing, tolerant, productive society. May it be so!