Jesús doesn’t read well. I sit with him on a Tuesday afternoon as he slowly works his way though the week’s catechism lesson. When he comes to his namesake in the text, he always says “Christ” instead of Jesus. When I correct him, he stops and stares at the page. “I can’t believe I missed it again,” he says.
Jesús is a small and quiet man. He is kind and slow to anger. No one would guess that he was convicted of murder. Before his confirmation last Easter, Jesús worried that he “wasn’t ready.” As we read together one afternoon, he looked at me so directly that I was momentarily taken aback. “Can I ask you something?” he said. “Of course,” I answered. “Do you think I’m worthy enough to be confirmed?” “More than you know,” I replied.
Jesús is haunted by a terrible childhood. He and I have attended Bible study together long enough for me to know some of the wounds he bears. Like so many others here, he was abused and neglected by parents who must have been incapable of caring for themselves, much less their children. It is incomprehensible to him that his mother kept his brothers and sisters but abandoned him. He was shunted off to foster homes, where he suffered even worse abuse. He sometimes tries to express his pain, his sense of betrayal, but he can’t get it out. It’s too much. He shakes his head, drops his gaze, and retreats into silence, mumbling, “It’s not important.” Jesús never knew his father. The rest of his family have fled from one another and scattered. When a volunteer asked Jesús how long it had been since he had a visitor, he answered, “fourteen years,” which is the number of years he’s been in prison. (That volunteer now visits here often, whenever she’s not visiting her own sons in another prison unit.)
Jesús is mildly dyslexic. He often reads the word “no” as “on,” and vice versa. “The letters wiggle,” he once told me. Sometimes he guesses words. When he’s wrong, I tell him. He tries again. It takes us two hours to get through four pages of the catechism workbook, but we are patient with one another. I introduced him to the utility of a 3x5 index card to keep from getting lost in the maze of sentences and paragraphs. I’ve shown him how to break down the words into syllables and sound them out phonetically. “Where did you learn all that?” he asked me. “The Sisters of Mercy taught me at St. Joseph’s School.” He didn’t know where this was, so I drew a crude map of the Texas Panhandle. He asked me about my home. It’s been a long time since I’ve been there. Much of what I remember as home is no longer in this world.
Jesús and I study in a crowded dayroom in one section of a dorm that holds 332 other men. Four televisions blare mindless, pacifying noise. Men argue and vehemently curse one another as they sit at steel tables playing games. They slam down the dominoes as if force alone could ensure victory or prevent defeat. When Jesús becomes tired or distracted, we stop and take deep breaths, stand up and stretch. He once saw me jotting down notes during one of our meetings and wondered why. When I told him I am often blessed by what I’m hearing, and want to remember the word of the Lord that is sounded from his lips, he smiled and said, “I didn’t know that.”
The grace of these Tuesday meetings gets me through the rest of the week. Spending time with Jesús makes me feel closer to Jesus, the one who calls us forth from the wilderness of our lives, from our despair and selfishness. Jesus told us that when we serve others we serve him, and I dare to hope it is so. He told us we must feed the hungry, care for the ill, clothe the naked, stand up for the oppressed, bury the dead, comfort those whose hearts are broken, and visit those in prison. That last one’s easy for me. It takes only a few steps for me to visit another prisoner.
I wonder if the reason more parishes don’t have active prison ministries is because the priests, deacons, and parishioners are still afraid of us, afraid of what lies beyond the walls and concertina wire. Prisoners are the unknown, and, too often, the unforgiven. They need, more than anything else, someone just to sit with them a while, without judgment—someone who will listen as they try to tell their stories and imagine a better ending.