Originally posted August 19, 2011, at Lutheran Confessions. Republished with permission of the author.
Some of the best church happens behind bars. This past Sunday, lay Eucharistic ministers from St. Paul’s Episcopal here in Fayetteville, Ark., invited us (myself and three lay people from Good Shepherd Lutheran Church) as visitors to learn about and participate in the leadership of Eucharistic ministry at the women’s prison in Fayetteville.
We met in the St. Paul’s sacristy. The Episcopalians wore cassocks with surplices, of course, which I very much like, but here I was a clergy person in jeans and a Lewis & Clark button down.
In actuality I only wear cassocks on Ash Wednesday, and when I’m inhabiting an avatar on “Second Life.” :-) We gathered up the supplies — wine, bread, flowers and bulletins — and took the short two-block trip over to the prison.
Tom, the chaplain, greeted us. We did the typical security detail — metal detector, name tags, sign in sign out — then walked through those heavy bolted doors and down to the gathering room. We set up worship in the round, using the identical order of service the congregation had used at St. Paul’s that morning.
Then we waited. All the women came in (wearing yellow), and here’s where all my emotional sensors started tripping.
The prison has a “no touch” rule.
The women can’t hug, walk arm in arm, etc. during the course of the week. But during worship they can. So as soon as they entered the worship space, they were hugging each other and walking hand in hand. I can think of no more powerful habit that speaks, “This space we are entering is holy.”
We sat around the circle in our folding chairs and began worship. There was a cappella singing — robust if creaky. The priest invited various readers for the lessons and psalms, offered a brief sermon on the text — from the heart, unscripted — and then went to the communion liturgy. I was honored to be invited to serve the bread with him.
I somehow doubt that all these women had been raised Episcopalian — approx. 30 of the 100 residents attended — but you wouldn’t know it by their collective action. They had truly made the liturgy the work of the people.
They knew the actions and the songs. They sang a Taizé chant during communion distribution, “Jesus Remember Me When You Come into Your Kingdom,” non-stop during the distribution. They did that wonderful sharing of the peace really close congregations do.
After worship, there was a brief chat and then back to their cells, and us back to the freedom of life outside the prison walls. One young woman had just arrived that day. She was nervous and scared.
A few women gathered around her and said, “We’ll do this; we’ll get through this.” During worship, we also blessed two women who were leaving incarceration that very week. And we remembered and recognized two women who had been baptized in worship the Sunday prior.
And all of this, though straightforward, very traditional and liturgical, all very normal, had a hallowed glow to it that I simply cannot describe in this blog. It was luminous. And then it ended. And they are still in prison. And I sit here free to write this. And Christ is in the midst of all of us. And yes, those are tears.
Find a link to Clint Schnekloth’s blog Lutheran Confessions at Lutheran Blogs.