For the past nine years, I have served at Norfolk Correctional, a men’s medium security prison in Walpole. I lead discussions of spirituality, theology, and philosophy with men who form a formal third order Lay Dominican Catholic chapter. When I first visited prison, it was as a favor for a Jesuit friend to give a lecture on friendship and love in Aristotle and Aquinas. I quickly discovered that visiting the men was more about learning than teaching, and more about discovering mercy than delivering it.
After my rather formal presentation, complete with lectern and podium, a middle-aged man stood up and offered his own reflection on love. He shared the line from Scripture: “Greater love has no one that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). He then shared that in his twenties, he understood the value of sacrificing one’s life in terms of protecting and honoring his gang. Now in prison for life, he shared that he understood “laying down his life” in terms of living a life of virtue and prayer from within the prison walls in order to witness to his children the value of human life. Listening to him, I felt as though all my textbook wisdom fell away, and I encountered his deep authenticity and willingness to share with me, a stranger.
Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, a Jesuit who serves former gang members in Los Angeles says, “service is the hallway that gets you into the banquet room of kinship.” We don’t serve because we have something to give that others lack in their weakness or need, but rather as members of the same human family, all of us sometimes strong and sometimes weak. I no longer speak from a podium, and I try to do a lot more listening. We sit together, on old metal folding chairs with taped-up legs on the stage of a rather drafty auditorium. There, I have witnessed examples of compassion, heard many spiritual insights, and received faithful hospitality. I’ve seen an older, balding lifer patiently mentor a twenty year old who had lost his temper earlier in the day, walking him through how better to manage his feelings. One day I was feeling particularly anxious about whether I would be granted tenure at my university, as I awaited the outcome. That evening, an inmate about to meet with his parole board spoke of his belief that God would somehow use his life for good, whether he was granted parole or remained in prison. His faith surpassed my own, and I was humbled.
My service has also led to a greater concern for the systematic and social factors that affect the community that I serve, that is, questions about criminal justice and where the current system succeeds and fails. While these issues are outside the immediate scope of volunteer work, they profoundly affect the people whom I serve. Service teaches us much about the interconnectedness of the human family, and our dependence on one another.