This past year, I served as a chaplain at the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Shakopee, a prison for women. I knew it would be an unfamiliar and challenging place, and I wondered how humanity could be found there. I likened my questions to the awareness that dawned upon Jacob in Genesis 28:16: “And Jacob awakened from his sleep, and he said, ‘Indeed, God is in this place, and I did not know [it].’” I pondered the depths of meaning in this biblical verse. How far could I open my heart and soul to others whose lives were, at least at first glance, so different from my own? I wondered if Judaism’s affirmation of compassion would be expansive enough to include a woman who committed an action so wrong that it landed her in prison?
As my chaplaincy year began, I knew I would encounter far more non-Jews than Jews. It was my goal to find a spark of humanity in all the offenders no matter their beliefs or background. I hoped to convey to each person that their humanity was sacred and that, despite the circumstance of being in prison or the events that had brought them to the facility, each woman had the right to be seen as a person.
Appreciating that I faced a population of women who had transgressed the law, I soon began grappling with the depth of my own compassion. No doubt I was filled with sympathy; I felt the distress of the women I met while recognizing my own desire to try to alleviate their sorrows. But how much compassion could I hold?
I met “Sally,” an offender, while visiting the area called segregation — a place where offenders are kept in private cells for 23 hours a day, locked behind solid doors containing only a small window. Numerous reasons exist as to why an offender is placed in this type of cell. Regardless of the cause, this is a hard place to live. On one of my weekly visits to segregation, I stopped by her cell door and introduced myself as one of the chaplains. Immediately, she asked, “Chaplain, can you save my soul?” Swallowing hard, I asked, “Why does it need saving?” She replied, “I did some bad stuff.” I continued, “And now you know it was pretty bad and it was wrong?” When she told me she was a Christian, I felt a wash of nervousness come over me, mixed with deep concern. What could I reasonably offer to ”Sally”? And so I prayed, using language and calling upon God in a way that rattled me to the core, but that could potentially offer her comfort. As I walked back to my office, I wondered if I had transgressed my own line of religious belief and conviction, and yet I knew, in that moment, God was present.
A few weeks later, I met with my interfaith clergy group (of which I am the only Jewish member). I was eager to tell them of this encounter, but before I could even share a single detail, I blurted out, “I think I stole your God!” It was good to be among friends, for as we talked, I came to realize that while I drew upon language and images from a faith tradition that was not my own, with deep integrity I had remained quite rooted in Jewish tradition by speaking and praying from the depths of compassion.
A Jewish offender I came to know in my weekly class on Jewish spirituality asked if she could make an appointment to meet with me one-on-one. Soon after “Bobbie” sat down, she asked if I knew much about her background. “Other than being Jewish,” I said, “I really know little. What would you like to tell me?” “Well, it may interest you to know,” she began, “that I have two PhDs in higher math and have worked at Harvard and been a guest lecturer at Stanford.” She then told me about her relationship to Judaism and about the challenge of being Jewish in prison. After she left, I took a moment to consider this woman and her story. Though she had achieved much, certain choices she had made had radically altered her world. I wondered how it was that this woman could have been so engaged with Judaism and yet not adhere to the most basic mitzvot. Knowing that it was not my place to judge, I felt that with compassion I could be present for her in her struggle.
Although I want to understand these women, it is challenging to appreciate the extent of their crimes or the contours of their lives that may have contributed to their criminal acts. Many of these women come from situations hard to imagine. Many arrive at the facility having been emotionally, physically, and/or sexually abused. A large number never completed high school. Prior to their arrest, drugs and alcohol were a regular part of most of the women’s daily lives. Nonetheless, these women’s faces and souls remarkably resemble my face and soul. I do believe we must be accountable for our wrongs, but I soon came to appreciate that there are women at this prison who might be our neighbors, our peers, and even our own children.
After a year, I came to realize that having compassion for another is a critical way of finding the spark of humanity that God placed within each of us at creation. The challenge is to be able to uphold this outlook even when our deepest convictions and most strongly held beliefs are tested.email print