West Block is one of the largest housing units in California’s San Quentin State Prison, and it’s still not big enough. Prisoners are bunked wherever there is room. Walking the wide passageway along the ground-floor cellblock, I can see a hundred double-decker, rusty-spring beds. An inmate in an orange jumpsuit sits on the edge of his bunk smoking a cigarette; another lies stretched out reading a tattered paperback; a third stares into the gray light oozing through grimy windows above. All three men are on “Broadway,” as the first floor of West Block is called, with only two toilets (converted cells), and nothing but time. As a Catholic chaplain, I aim to bring some sunshine into this terrible, depressing place.

A gaunt face, wreathed in shaggy hair, stares out at me from behind the black iron bars. Willie has that tired, dead-in-the-eyes look that tells me he has been here more that a couple of times. As it turns out, this is his seventh incarceration at the Q. He’s nervous and antsy, a little desperate. I ask where he’s from, what kind of work he does, his drug of choice. Heroin, he tells me. Like crack, heroin is especially tough to shake, and I ask if he has tried rehab.

“I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus,” he declares.

“But this is your seventh time here, Willie,” I say, as he eyes me uneasily. “Without rehab, you won’t-”

“The blood of Jesus is enough,” he cuts me off.

“It hasn’t worked so far,” I respond. “I think Jesus would like you to go to rehab.”

But Willie shakes off the suggestion. He tells me that he tried rehab, but now he’s laying it all on Jesus. And-not for the first time-I find myself watching an inmate desperately cling to “the blood of Jesus,” and thinking I am seeing fundamentalism revealed in its naked state.

It’s easy enough to avoid fundamentalism, and its kissing cousin Pentecostalism, in America, as long as you steer clear of inner cities, rural backwaters-and prisons. The Q, which sits on prime real estate on the west side of San Francisco Bay, is a bastion of Christian fundamentalism. Bulging with born-again believers, a Bible in every cell, the prison sometimes feels like a multitiered revivalist church.

The inmates I have met over my years of prison ministry come from the meanest streets of California’s fifty-seven counties. Most lack high-school diplomas, are marginally literate, and are prime targets for religious preachers. Suddenly isolated from family and friends, the new inmate is often in a state of shock. In such circumstances he may think, “Maybe God can help me. Nothing else has worked so far.”

In the Q it is easy to get into an argument about faith. The first thing inmates typically blurt out when they learn I’m from the Catholic chaplain’s office is: “Why do Catholics worship Mary?” followed by “Why do you believe the pope instead of the Bible?” Such questions show they’ve been reading fundamentalist pamphlets comparing the “true” Christian church with the corrupt Catholic Church. It’s no use attempting to explain that no Catholic believes Mary is divine, or that God, not the pope, is the ultimate authority, as revealed both in the Scriptures and the living tradition dating back to Peter and the apostles. Similarly, pointing out that the Catholic Church put the Bible together in the fourth century will get you little more than a blank look. “I’m saved by the blood of Jesus” is the all-purpose retort.

Of course, there are some wonderful people who attend the Protestant chapel at San Quentin. I find them intriguing, and their faith challenging. I often look up Fernando, a Latino from New York City and sometime “jailhouse minister.” Fernando was born Catholic, but when I first met him, he would taunt me about Mary and the pope. He’s a decent sort, pudgy and loquacious, with an easy smile as he chatters at me through the bars of his cell. Through our brief, intermittent encounters, we have become almost buddies. He acts as if we are coreligionists-and if you believe in “the priesthood of all believers,” as Luther, Vatican II, and I do, then we are.

I tell Fernando I would like to understand him better. “I believe I’ve been saved by the blood of Jesus,” he explains. “No matter what I do in the future, I am saved.” He trembles as he says it, so powerful is this truth to him.

“No matter what you do?” I ask.

“No matter what I do.”

Fernando is a good guy with a good heart, and I think he’s honestly struggling with his demons. When you have an addiction (heroin, in his case), the search for hope must be a perilous battle, and I don’t doubt that his faith in Jesus is an effort to prevail. Christian faith can-and should-provide that hope. But still I worry. I am reminded of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and what he called “cheap grace,” the sort of belief that comes without having to pay much of a price. Such grace is focused on self-justification, and I worry that Fernando’s faith in Jesus is a little too self-justifying.

Bonhoeffer was reacting especially to those Christians who were going along with Hitler instead of standing up and being counted for the sake of the gospel. And Fernando’s addiction, amplified by his experience as a poor and often persecuted Latino, must sometimes feel as hard to resist as the Nazi regime. As I noted, most of San Quentin’s inmates come from the most violent and abject of circumstances. Many do not speak English-the poorest of the poor Latino immigrants living on the fringes of society and of the church. Menial work is often the best they can find. The rate of out-of-wedlock births is high, supportive social structures are few, and the daily struggle to survive makes it difficult to develop the skills and habits needed to create a better future.

In this harsh world, a fervent faith dangles the hope of being saved by the blood of Jesus. And that hope is plausible. Fundamentalist Christianity can help give structure and protection to the lives of adherents. Often, however-at least in my experience-it proves not strong enough to help inmates reorder their lives and keep them out of the Q. It’s only a half-truth. So why is it so prevalent?

The attraction of fundamentalism in the Q might not have surprised Jonathan Edwards, the charismatic preacher and Puritan theologian who shaped so much of American Protestant Evangelical religion. As George Marsden mordantly noted in his recent biography of Edwards, the preacher’s family members were not all law-abiding citizens: “[his] grandmother was an incorrigible profligate, his great-aunt committed infanticide, and his great-uncle was an ax-murderer.” It shouldn’t surprise us that a troubled and unruly life is often reflected in the fierceness of a person’s religion. Like most Protestants in 1740 and so many of the born-again Christians I’ve met in prison today, Edwards famously saw man as a sinner in the hands of an angry God, suspended like a spider over the fiery furnace of hell. Like Calvin, he believed that faith alone can save us. Our good works are of no value. Such a doctrine has obvious resonance in a penitentiary, whose inmates are there, after all, because of their bad works.

But the real roots of contemporary jailhouse fundamentalism lie in late nineteenth-century America. That was when, faced with the threat of the newer biblical criticism and the challenge of science and evolution, fundamentalists declared the Bible inerrant. If we can have a direct experience of God only through God’s instrument, the Bible, then God’s word must be perfect and infallible. William Jennings Bryan would later argue, at the 1925 Scopes trial, that “the only thing that can save the Bible is literalism.” Such literalism led to a belief in what Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby have called “physicality”: “blood atonement” by Jesus followed by a “physical” resurrection in the very corpuscles of the dead Jesus’ body.

In this context, “the blood of Jesus” becomes more important than the Son’s love for the Father in shedding it. (That conviction was clearly at work in Mel Gibson’s graphic film The Passion of the Christ, which was especially popular among fundamentalists and Evangelicals.) And along with literalism often comes an exaggerated, self-centered individualism. Where Catholicism emphasizes the social nature of the person, many Evangelicals echo Bob Jones’s contemptuous dismissal of the social gospel as “a joke.” “We can only change society as we change individuals in society,” Jones said. “There’s only the gospel of grace of God, and it’s an individual gospel.”

But whatever its limitations and distortions-at least from a Catholic viewpoint-fundamentalism enables many people to encounter God while helping them attempt to lead good lives. In fact, Catholics can learn some important lessons from those who have been born again in the Spirit. For one, though the Catholic faith is rich, profound, and rewarding, adherents can get lost in abstract theologies and rules; and the Evangelicals’ or Pentecostalists’ direct encounter with Jesus can provide a helpful reorientation. Fundamentalism also emphasizes love of the Bible. Despite exhortations and decrees, one sometimes suspects that many Catholics will never open the Bible without being locked up in a cell. We ought to recall that St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.” Finally, fundamentalists have an enthusiasm for the faith that more sophisticated believers have lost in our skeptical age; such enthusiasm reminds us that religion is not some remote, authoritarian process, but the house where we experience God.

So, despite my own skepticism, I have continued to learn a great deal from the born-again and fundamentalist believers in the Q, and to encourage them in their faith. And to ask myself: How can the Catholic Church respond better to the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable, especially within the Latino community?

First, I believe we should encourage alternative models of outreach to the unchurched. In the traditional model, Catholic life revolves around the parish and the Sunday liturgy. In my experience, however, few in the Latino immigrant community have the catechetical education (or the patience) for formal liturgies. Instead, they are looking to discover a sense of belonging, and to hear the Word preached. And it’s noteworthy that the Evangelicals who preach it to them aren’t holed up in churches, but right out there, in storefronts and on street corners. Theirs is not a conventional war, but a guerrilla struggle.

In short, what is needed is a slew of Catholic communities in every barrio in the United States and the Americas: small groups meeting in homes and cramped apartments to experience Jesus in the Scriptures and to catch faith from a loving, supportive familia. These efforts would be energized and facilitated by lay leaders, but connected to the larger diocese, so that eventually, when a person is ready, he or she might be drawn into the more traditional parish structure. Come to think of it, this form of outreach might also work in reverse, allowing the rich to benefit from immersion in the lives of the poor. That, after all, is what the New Testament calls on us to do.

And that’s what I’ve taken away from the Q.

Dennis Burke is the author of Doing Time: Finding Hope at San Quentin, to be published by Paulist Press. This article was adapted from that book. He is also the author of the novel Clerical Affairs (Xlibris).

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Published in the 2007-12-07 issue: View Contents
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