Earlier this year, John Flock and I, Unitarian Universalists, began participating with Maria Telesco in prison ministry at a men’s state prison. We learned of a small group of men interested in furthering a Unitarian Universalist fellowship. Maria had already been going to the prison to provide emotional support and spiritual counseling. Neither John nor I had any prior experience within prisons, yet we were curious regarding prisoners and their spiritual paths.
Getting past orientation training, where administration intends to frighten the volunteers as to whom they will be dealing with, we were prepared to be on constant alert, ready to respond with the emergency alert button on a moment’s notice. As we arrived inside the prison gates and walls, the sound of slamming gates was profound; we wondered if we would ever be able to get out. Maria’s extensive experience with prisons, protocols and dealing with prison officials eventually put us more at ease, so that we were enabled to meet with prisoners for ongoing biweekly services.
Much to our surprise, we met a committed group of men who expressed interest in our support of their spiritual growth with Unitarian Universalism and beyond. “Gabriel,” one of the leaders, had survived a harrowing 18 months at San Quentin. He arrived there with his spirit broken, his mind terrorized and a dismal outlook on his future in prison. He, like others, felt the enormous pain of missing gatherings with family and friends and religious services as the holiday season approached.
Gabriel met a fellow inmate who professed the gospel of Unitarian Universalism and encouraged him to join the UU Church of the Larger Fellowship. He and his friend, joined by others, gathered on the yard for spiritual discussions. Summer’s searing heat caused attendance to wane on the yard; his friend sought, with no success, a spiritual adviser on the outside.
Gabriel initiated a project that provided free holiday greeting cards to inmates in an effort to build stronger outside contacts. A monetary donation by an employee from the Ella Baker Center in Oakland encouraged Gabriel to continue seeking a sponsor. While reading the Community Alliance in prison, he found the names of potential sponsors, churches and individuals. Gabriel wrote to the UU Church of Fresno and the Fresno Center for Nonviolence, and eventually hooked up with Maria Telesco.
Prison authorities acknowledged the UUs as an “official” religious group in the fall of 2009, which enabled us to use the chapel at designated times. Gabriel and his peers named their group GRUUP (Group of Religious Unitarian Universalist Prisoners). The original group of eight men has grown to a roster of 50 inmates, with an average attendance of 30 inmates at the biweekly services.
It has been an enriching experience for John and me to witness and participate in their thought-provoking topics, joyful music and sharing of personal truths. What is unique about this prison ministry is that the core GRUUP takes responsibility for choosing the topics and planning the service. Many of the inmates, having revealed extensive religious and educational backgrounds, brought to mind for me the question: How is it possible to have considerable societal foundations and still end up in prison?
These inmates are working hard on recognizing their wounds, behaviors and addictions that led them to commit crimes. Psychologically, their needs are addressed primarily by medication. Yet spiritual healing is possible with UU services, meditation, extensive reading and service within their community. They have much time on their hands; their spiritual growth and transformation depend on how they use it. Rehabilitation appears to be working for many of these men, without the direct involvement of prison staff and officers.
“Pat,” an immigrant, came from a devout Catholic family. He was introduced to Buddhism and New Age philosophies while attending UC Berkeley. He regards himself as a seeker of truth on a spiritual journey and finds the GRUUP an excellent forum through which to learn from diverse spiritual backgrounds. He will be deported to his native country upon release, but he appears to be content that he will establish a community of similar seekers there.
“Troy” had a fulfilling background in Episcopal and Universalist religious experiences. He regards the GRUUP as a place where people of diverse backgrounds and lifestyles share their thoughts and experiences. He appreciates the teaching of understanding, acceptance and compassion for not the exterior person, but for their inner soul. He also stated that because of his liberal faith he is able to live with himself in all his humanity, having made mistakes, accepting consequences, forgiving himself and growing as a human being.
“Priscilla,” as a transgender inmate, has faced the difficulty of personal rejection with her Catholic background and has found acceptance, freedom and being spiritually alive in her newfound religion.
“Jay” found that his past experiences in religion were fulfilling to him, yet he was very interested in the GRUUP and what was being shared at the services. He finds that he has attained a peace of mind knowing he can’t be judged for who he is within this setting.
“Cowboy” stated that the GRUUP is a place where trust is allowed to be fostered and nurtured by individuals who were previously unable to trust or be trusted.
“Newman” stated it appears that the GRUUP is a sacred fellowship because the members want it to be and work toward making it so.
“Geoffrey” was raised in a Congregational Christian community but found the Christian fellowship in prison to be judgmental and disrespectful based on his crime and sexual orientation. He expressed that having a fellowship that is safe, compassionate and understanding is so important to him. The value of developing a group of friends who can be open, honest and caring will help him and others cope with the stress of prison life. He regards his UU practice as a positive force in his life, for without a personal philosophy, faith-based future and support, why have a religion at all?
“Edgar” was an upstanding member of a “mega church” for many years. He was hurt and felt abandoned as he was cut off abruptly due to his conviction and 10-year term. He regards the GRUUP as “safety upon hallowed ground, not a killing ground where the wounded are shot down and the down-fallen are abused.” He is strongly motivated by the quest for truth, the purpose of life, and his relationship with God and other people.
“Nathan” was raised as a Calvinist, which fulfilled him in his life with meaning, community, traditions, aesthetics and structure. Like many others in prison, it failed him in his personal crisis. “Where is God in this hell?” He noted how difficult it is to find an inclusive, open-minded religious fellowship in prison. He has found the experience critical to his current path of self-knowledge, building self-esteem and his dedication to care for the Earth. He is also learning to “create my own theology” with his interest in Judaism and Paganism, referring to www.telshemesh.org.
If you have doubted the success of our prison systems in terms of the rehabilitation of inmates or whether our tax dollars are being put to use wisely in the area of corrections, you are not alone. This GRUUP project gives me hope for our society when these brave inmates seek their own path of spiritual awakening, personal growth and building a healthy community where one is not expected to exist. John and I remain in continuous admiration of the work that is being done by a committed group of inmates despite the odds against their eventual successful return to society. May it continue to flourish.