Wednesday, April 21, 2010

'I was in Prison, and You Came to Me...'

Dear Parish Faithful,


Pascha - The Eighteenth Day

Following the Liturgy on Sunday, a group from the parish visited the Warren Correctional Institute, and offered a program of Orthodox liturgical music to a gathering of about thirty-forty of the inmates. This was organized by Terry Morgan who is a member of the Kairos Prison Ministry at the WCI, and Pat Pride, our parish choir director. I accompanied the group that consisted of:

Brian Farison
Joe Kormos
Joyce Kormos
Presbytera Deborah Kostoff
Jeannie Markvan
Terry Morgan
Pat Pride (choir director)
Steve Pride
Johnothon Sauer

After passing through security we were given a brief description of the facilities and the over-all organization of the prison by Chaplain Henry. This prison contains very serious offenders, including rapists and murderers. It is just a notch below maximum security. He then walked us through the prison grounds to the chapel and introduced us to the inmates who were present based on a promotional flier that was posted on the bulletin board of the chapel, announcing a "Concert of Eastern Orthodox Music from the Ancient Faith." That promised to be something different, I would imagine. Pat put together a very effective program, that began with an example of the "ancientness" of the Orthodox Faith ("O, Gladsome Light"). What followed then was a journey from the pre-lenten period (stichera from the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, "Open to Me the Gates of Repentance"); Great Lent itself (stichera from the Sunday of the Cross, Praises from the Matins of Holy Friday, "Do Not Lament Me O Mother"); and culminating with Pascha ("The Angel Cried," and "Let God Arise").

The program and our singing was very enthusiastically received by the gathered inmates. Not knowing what to expect, based upon the sheer "otherness" of what we were presenting, that was both a relief and a cause of joy for all of us. There was a bit of Q & A to follow, and that further created at least a momentary "bond" between two groups that clearly come from two very distinct worlds of experience. There was even a final request for us to return at Christmas. Wait until they hear "Today the Virgin Gives Birth to the Transcendent One" instead of "Silent Night!"

What I found quite interesting, though, was the response of Chaplain Henry who spoke to the group briefly before we departed. He was clearly impressed by the rich theological content of the hymnography, making it clear that that is not what is any longer heard nowadays. He was struck by the fact that some of the hymns evoked a feeling of "sadness," and others of "joyfulness." He commented on how that led to a fuller experience than that of the loud and boisterous noise accompanying contemporary "worship music." This all seemed to touch a deep chord within him and confronted him with what he was missing in his own worship. It may have been a fleeting response, but he clearly lamented that absence. He was groping, on the spot, to offer a quick and accessible history lesson for the inmates about the "old days" when the hymnography reinforced the Scriptures and the "story" of the Gospel based upon the Death and Resurrection of Christ. He even told the inmates, this is how it was done "in the days of Jesus and the apostles!"

What was of greater importance, though, was the fact of our brief encounter and contact - however briefly - with this small group of prisoners at the WCI. No doubt, the prisoners are "reaping what they sowed." They have committed crimes and their prison sentences are the "price" they paid for those crimes, and the for the horrible fact that other people have been victimized in irreversible ways that we cannot begin to fathom. Yet, these are all human persons created "in the image and likeness of God." Many of the prisoners have repented of their crimes and become believing Christians in the process. The limitless forgiveness of God in that context must be overwhelming. And their remorse must be fearsome. This is all combined with the fact that life in a prison facility - regardless of how well administrated it may be - must be one long nightmare of alienation, loneliness, social ostracism, and constant fear of what can happen within the walls of a prison. Christ emphatically teaches that visiting those in prison is an act of charity and compassion. We also pray for those in prisons in our liturgies. Standing and singing before the inmates, conversing a bit afterward and shaking some offered hands was a good way of bringing to mind these men who are seeking to recover their humanity and dignity as they serve out their "just" sentences. For both our choir and the inmates it was a learning experience for all who were involved as we both tried to reach across some real barriers. And for this we glorify God.

We are glad that our parish is represented in the Kairos prison ministry at WCI by Terry Morgan and Dan Georgescu. We are further glad that our children and families assist in the "cookies for prison ministry program." (Those cookies, incidentally, are due on Sunday, May 2). I am sure that we will find other opportunities for contact in the future.

In Christ,

Fr. Steven

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