I went to love,
But was loved every day.
I went to educate,
But learned more than I ever knew.
But was heard for the first time.
I went to patch wounds,
But left restored.
I entered ignorant,
But departed wise.
I entered fearful,
But departed courageous.
I entered blind,
But left with sight.
I entered hopeful,
But left determined.
What happened I cannot explain, for
Truth is never revealed through words.
I wrote this poem close to ten years ago. With a couple of months remaining in my one-year commitment as a Jesuit Volunteer, I attempted to assemble the words to convey at least a small part of the spiritual, emotional and intellectual transformation that I experienced while serving as a Catholic chaplain at California State Prison in Sacramento (CSP-Sac). Almost a decade later, this experience continues to teach and challenge me.
During my time as a volunteer, I worked under the direction of Deacon Dennis Merino, and I was sponsored by the Inside Circle Foundation. Deacon Merino was the head Catholic chaplain at CSP-Sac and an invaluable mentor for me. As a Catholic chaplain, I had the opportunity to facilitate religious and spiritual groups, meditation groups, philosophy groups and support groups for the inmates in the three chapels located in the three maximum-security yards. I also walked with several men as we explored our faith journeys and gave death notifications to inmates when a family member died. Although this ministry included various tasks and assignments, its foundation was built on presence and relationship.
In early Aug. 2004, prior to beginning my year of service at CSP-Sac, I attended an orientation retreat with fellow Jesuit Volunteers. At this retreat, I had the opportunity to give a testimony about why I chose to serve in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. I explained to the group of young women and men that I am very blessed. I explained that I grew up with two parents who consistently express love to my brothers and me. I went on to explain that I often question why I am so fortunate. Why did I get the chance to grow up in such a caring home? I then suggested that the reason I was shown so much love while growing up was so I could pass along this love to other people. I considered a year serving in a prison to be an ideal opportunity for me to share my love with other men.
I entered CSP-Sac with the expectation to share my love with the men inside, and I did. I wished that by sharing my love and showing compassion, I might also bring comfort to a place plagued by violence, anger, grief, pain, sadness, shame and fear. However, what immediately caught my attention was not the way in which I showed love and compassion. Rather, it was how I received love and compassion.
From the first day that I walked the yards, the inmates that Deacon Merino introduced me to welcomed me with open arms. What also surprised me was how easy it was to be myself. I never felt the need to wear a mask or put on a show to impress others. I had the opportunity to be my true, authentic self — an opportunity that I rarely have outside those concrete prison walls. I could reveal all of the beauty and gifts that God granted me during my life, and they were accepted.
More importantly, I was able to reveal all of my ugliness, guilt, anger, hatred, frustration and fear, and they were also accepted. I believe that these “negative” emotions are the ones that men in our society often neglect, deny and repress. Nevertheless, these men did not judge me. Instead, they appreciated the fact that I was willing to be real with them. In fact, the times that I began to step out of my authentic self, my new friends let me know and called me out. Amidst a place of darkness, I encountered incredible light, goodness, healing, joy and courage.
Almost 10 years after I finished my year as a Jesuit Volunteer, I long for my friends at CSP-Sac. I miss their music and poems. I miss their laughter and smiles. I miss their bear hugs and pats on the back. Most of all I miss their presence and friendship.
I am not surprised that I decided to write about my experience of transformation that took place inside the walls of CSP-Sac for the CFJ Lenten blog series. The invitation to ongoing spiritual, emotional and intellectual transformation is at the heart of the Lenten season celebrated by multiple Christian denominations around the world. This transformation can be very difficult and painful at times. One way that transformation can take place is by allowing oneself to be vulnerably present to and receptive of God’s love, compassion and friendship. I believe the acceptance of God’s love simply changes a person.
A second way this transformation can take place is through a letting go of one’s biases, judgments, authority, false sense of control, perceived knowledge and need for certainty. This letting go widely opens one’s heart, mind and eyes to different perspectives and ideas, as well as the mystery that we call God, which creates space for invaluable growth.
May we actively respond to this invitation to transformation not only during this Lenten season but for the days, months and years that follow.
Greg Mellor is in his first year on staff at Xavier, coming to Cincinnati from the great cold of Northern New York. he bikes to campus, has a wicked sense of humor and is growing Companion groups with his contemplative presence. If you are looking to try different prayer practices, talk to him about joining his weekly contemplative sit.