There were lessons aplenty to be learned during Kairos #13 at Menard this past weekend.
Inside the prison…and out…as it happened.
Inside, I encountered a frustrating sense of helplessness. I heard more stories than I care to count of the indignities routinely suffered by the inmates. One example: a Kairos veteran told me that he had recently spent 16 days in “seg” (or solitary confinement). It surprised me, because I know this man to be generally good-natured—not the type to stir up trouble and incur the wrath of the system.
And my instincts were correct: He’d gone to seg not due to any actions on his part, but because his ‘cellie’ had attempted suicide. So, both men wound up ‘in the hole’ more or less as a preventative measure…until details of the incident could be sorted out.
As a Kairos volunteer, you can offer a sympathetic ear when you hear about such situations. Beyond that, there’s really nothing you can do to ease a resident’s pain. Just listen. ‘Listen, listen, love, love.’ In fact, that’s the theme of every single Kairos Weekend, held at every prison across the country and around the world. We’re not there to ‘fix’ the criminal justice system. We’re not there to shorten sentences…or provide medical care…or offer legal advice.
We’re there to listen.
Even though I know that’s my charge as a Kairos volunteer, it seemed like an inadequate gift to offer…as I heard one resident after another tell me about the dehumanizing conditions, the violence and the fear they daily endure. Perhaps my sense of frustration was heightened by the jagged path we’d taken to get Kairos #13 presented in the first place. Originally scheduled for April, the retreat had been postponed—and the team, turned away—three different times in recent months due to lockdowns at the institution.
All that rejection tends to wear you down. Fecklessness is a bitter pill—inside a prison, or out. So like the sad-sack in Sunday’s gospel, you might well choose to punt. Bury your meager talent. It’s not going to make much difference anyway. But the homily I heard preached on this passage gave me something new to consider: Fear must not hold us back. Especially fear of inadequacy.
God gives us simple gifts of love and mercy to invest. God gives them. They’re not really our talents to begin with.
God gives the growth, too. Even in impossible circumstances.
I encountered the proof on Sunday afternoon, in the waning moments of the Kairos Weekend. Even as all my frustrations, all my inadequacies, all my fecklessness continued to roil deep inside (or was it perhaps the ‘Texas hash’ prison cuisine I’d consumed the day before?)…one of the participants approached the podium and began describing his experience of the past few days.
‘For years, I’ve felt like I’ve been wandering, lost, in the desert,’ he said. ‘Then Thursday night, it rained. And it kept raining the next day, and the next. And the rain fell on soil here that everyone said was dry and tired and good for nothing. But you know what? There were seeds hidden in that soil. Seeds no one could see. I couldn’t see them. Then God gave the rain. And it brought forth amazing color… and love…and the flower of Christ.’
What a wonderful thing, a wonder-filled thing, to see a prison in bloom.
Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.