This is one of the things I find most remarkable about prison ministry: How it brings scripture alive.
As church, we meditate on God’s promise of faithfulness every morning when we pray the Canticle of Zechariah: ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; he has come to his people and set them free…’
It’s a true statement—not just in Zechariah’s day, but in our own—if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear God’s saving power at work in the world. And that’s precisely the grace I seem receive when I go into Menard for a Kairos Weekend. God finds particular, unmistakable ways to remind me: ‘I’m here! I have not forsaken you—any of you!’
There were many such moments this past weekend. One of the most memorable took a while to unfold, and I probably can’t do it justice here—but let me try to break it open for you.
It involves two of the six inmates at our discussion table – the Family of Mark – who grew up in Mexico. One (I’ll call him ‘Pablo’) has learned to speak and write English since coming to the US; the other (‘Romario’) has not. Pablo, it turns out, has many gifts—among them, a brilliant smile, a beautiful singing voice and an extremely generous spirit. He happily agreed to serve as Romario’s translator for the weekend.
Pablo is also spiritually wise and quick to share his insights. Early on Friday, he nearly took my breath away with one of his comments. He noted how traumatic it was when he first started serving his sentence: ‘When you get to prison, everything is taken away: Your money, your clothing, your identity. You have nothing, literally nothing, to call your own.’ But reading scripture, he said, helped him move beyond that initial despair.
‘I was reflecting on the story told in Genesis,’ he smiled. ‘It tells us what God can do with nothing. God created the whole universe from nothing—so God can do something beautiful with my “nothing” too!’
As if to prove the point, God then found a way to bless the “nothingness” of our tablemate Romario that very night.
Pablo asked Romario to share the story with us: It seems that Romario’s son was celebrating his 16th birthday on Friday…and Romario had been praying throughout the day that somehow, some way, he’d be allowed to tell his son how much he loves him.
The odds weren’t good. You never know on the cellblock when you’ll actually have telephone privileges. And if you can’t speak English, it’s really difficult to even make the request.
But as it happened, Romario was granted access to the phone on Friday evening. He placed a call to his friend in Chicago, pleading with her to somehow get a birthday greeting to his son. She did him one better: Borrowing a cell phone from a family member, she dialed the number for Romario’s tiny hometown near Acapulco—and, miraculously reaching the 16-year-old on the first try—put phone-to-phone so that Romario could hear his son’s voice, and sing him a tender fatherly rendition of Las Mañanitas from across the miles.
I assure you, there wasn’t a dry eye at the table on Saturday morning when Romario and Pablo told the story…and then reprised the singing performance for us.
Out of nothing, our faithful God had found a way to bless Romario—and all of us in the Family of Mark—with an invitation to open our eyes and revel in the beauty of that special day. Along with, I suppose, the beauty of every day.
Estas son las mañanitas
que cantaba el rey David
Hoy por ser día de tu santo
te las cantamos aquí.
Despierta mi bien despierta
Mira que ya amaneció
Ya los pajaritos cantan
La luna ya se metió.
¡Qué linda está la mañana
en que vengo a saludarte
Venimos todos con gusto
y placer a felicitarte!
El día en que tú naciste,
nacieron todas las flores
Ya viene amaneciendo
ya la luz del dia nos dió.
These are the dawns
that King David sang about
We are singing here because today is your birthday
Wake up my dear, Wake up and
see what dawn has brought
The birds are singing
and the moon has set.
How beautiful is this morning
on which I come to greet you
We come with happiness
and pleasure to congratulate you!
All flowers were born on the day
that you were born
Dawn is arriving and
the light of day is upon us.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.