By Reader John Boček
“Seek the Lord, and when you find Him call upon Him. When He draws close, let the wicked forsake hisway and the evil man his thoughts. Let them return to the Lord and they will find mercy, for He will abundantly pardon your sins” (Isaiah 55:6).
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
I greet you with the Paschal greeting:CHRIST IS RISEN! TRULY HE IS RISEN!
It was requested of me by the President of the Detroit Chapter of the St. Mosesthe Black Brotherhood (of which I am a proud member) to write something about my interest in the Prison ministry. Except for having a dear friend serving over twenty years in the Michigan state prison system, I don’t have any experience. However, I will try to convey to you what my hopes and desires are.
As I contemplate every day about this new journey I am about to take, fear comes over me. Not fear of the prisoners themselves, but fear of encountering Christ there. Why this fear? Because I realize I have nothing to offer Him except my own sins and brokenness. Yes, that is who I will be visiting in the prisons or jails . . . Jesus Christ Himself in the persons of the inmates as each prisoner is, as all of us are, an icon of Christ --- no matter how marred or broken that image may be, Christ is in each of them. “. . . I was in prison and you came to Me" (Matthew 25: 36).’They are icons of the suffering Christ, for they, as He, are
“. . .spurned and avoided by men, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, One of those from whom men hide their faces, spurned, and we held Him in no esteem” (Isaiah 55:2-3).
I ask the Holy Spirit to allow me to be His instrument of love and healing to these broken images of God. I pray that I will see them, not their sins, only those of my own.
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye’, while the wooden beam is in your eye?” (Matthew 7:3)
I hope that I always carry in my heart Jesus’ final prayer while hanging on the cross . . . “Father forgive them . . .” and mean it (Luke 23:24). I hope I will never become self-righteous and judge them. ”Judge not that you not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). May my personal judgment as well as my sins be ever before me. Besides, who know how many saints or potential saints are behind bars?
Sounds ridiculous? Throughout scripture, both Old and New Testaments, one would find many Saints who, if I were God, I wouldn’t have chosen any of them. For example, Moses killed an Egyptian, but God used Him to lead His people out slavery. King David lusted after Uriah’s wife and had Uriah sent in the front of the battle line, and was killed; therefore David not only committed adultery but murder also. However, God inspired him to write the beautiful Psalms and from his lineage the second Person of the Holy Trinity incarnated in the world and saved mankind.
St. Dismas, the “Good Thief,” who was crucified with Christ, recognized his sins and asked to be remembered in Jesus’ kingdom; request granted. St. Paul, thinking he was doing God’s work, sought out Christians to be killed and he became a great evangelist. And there are later saints of the Church such as St. Mary of Egypt, who was a very loose woman. There is St. Moses of Ethiopia who was a gang leader, who converted, became a monk and later was martyred. There was another Ethiopian, St. Fulvianus-Matthew, who was the king when the Apostle St. Matthew came to bring the gospel to him and his people. Fulvianus had St. Matthew killed, then repented of his sins and became not only a Christian, but a bishop also. Last, but not least to be mentioned, (not canonized as of yet), is Thomas Ryzkov of 19th century Russia. He was a mass murderer. On one Pascha evening, he entered a house of a wealthy family, killed the servants, and entered the room of a toddler with the intention to kill him too. The little boy held out to him a pysanky (decorated egg) and announced to Thomas, “Christ is risen!” And just with that did this little child convert “Wolf-man Thomas,” as he was known. So, tell me, if you were God, would you have chosen any of these people to do your work or would you pass judgment on them? So, thank God, we are not God.
I call upon the Lord to grant me the grace to not only see their brokenness, their pain and loneliness, but like Him, may I feel their brokenness, pain and loneliness too. I pray that I not only see His image in them, but that I will be able to reflect the same image back to them as well, and to live the prayer of a well-known western saint, Francis of Assisi:
Make me an instrument of Your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where is there is injury, pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; and where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand; to be loved as to love; for it is in giving that we receive; it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Amen.
Upon closing, I would like to recount a story that was told to a group of us by the founder of the Orthodox Prison Ministry, Father Duane Pederson, when someone in the group asked him why he was interested in this ministry. Father Duane explained that he had a friend who was having a crisis in her life. She went to her pastor to seek some consolation, but to her dismay all he did was to point out to her all the things she had done wrong that led to the situation she was in. Not feeling consoled, she made an appointment to visit Father Duane. While she was driving to his office, she noticed an accident just ahead of her, so she pulled over to observe the goings-on. What she noticed was that the first thing the E.M.T.s did was to stop the bleeding of the victims. She told Father that was what she wanted someone to do . . . to stop the bleeding. Then Father Duane ended the story saying: that’s all I am doing --- to stop the bleeding.
We Orthodox Christians believe that the Church is a spiritual hospital. Through her Mysteries that were given to her by Christ Himself are we healed. Christ commands us to go out into the world and to do what He did: to forgive and to heal both spirit and body. I pray that I will be found worthy to be His spiritual nurse and to stop the spiritual bleeding in the prisoners’ lives.
O Lord Jesus Christ, help me to love my imprisoned brothers and sisters, as You love them.
O Lord, help me to accept them, as You accept them.
O Lord, help me to forgive them, as You forgive them. Amen.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
Reader John Boček