Today’s find: Buzzards & burros

I’ve been inside The Joint often enough not to ever expect an inviting welcome. But yesterday’s approach was something else.

While the staff were professional and accommodating, as they typically are, the general environment provided a stark contrast this day.

Gloom hovered menacingly over Menard: low gray clouds spitting an insistent drizzle…accompanied by the threat of a descending fog bank. (“Fog” is a big deal on the inside, you see: It means no inmates can move from their cells, in order to reduce the opportunity for mischief.) So my Kairos teammates and I were glad that the fog stayed at bay, giving us the chance to conduct the early Christmas celebration we’d planned for our brothers on the inside.


Here’s how Menard Correctional Center rolled out the welcome mat yesterday…

Heading down Front Street – between two cell blocks and the mess hall – our crew of volunteers soon enough encountered another unsettling sight. As we approached the chapel building, a pack of jet-black buzzards made their haunting presence known. There must’ve been a dozen of ‘em, maybe two dozen – most perched on the roofline, but some constantly in motion…swooping down, to grab a quick bite from the dumpsters lined up just across the way.

I didn’t feel threatened by them exactly. But I did find myself wondering how any living creature could find it enticing to eat prison food that’s been left to rot in a dumpster. Happy Holidays, indeed.

But what then could account for the hope that also hung in the air? There was little to suggest that mystical gifts might emerge from all this dreariness. Rather, it was tempting to become a spiritual cousin of the sullen John we meet in this week’s Gospel passage:

When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?”

But hope has a way of penetrating even the thickest prison walls: I’ve learned that about this place, too. If I just keep my ears and heart open when visiting Menard, I’m likely to learn a thing or two. And so it was yesterday, during our “open mic” time – when we asked the residents to share some of their favorite Christmas memories.

One inmate decided to talk about Advent instead. In Mexico, he said, there’s a tradition in the village to prepare for Christ’s coming by re-enacting the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. They start by going from door to door, with several different villagers turning the desperate couple away. The procession then ends with a welcome at church – but to avoid profaning the sacred space, the real burro upon which Mary had been riding is replaced by two men in a burro costume.

Our story-teller recounted how he drew the short straw one year. He ended up inside the burro costume – the back-end, no less. And at the time, he found it incredibly annoying to function as the burro’s butt. His pride, understandably, took quite a hit.

In recent years, however, he’s learned to see this episode in a whole new light. He’s blessed, he said, to realize now how it had been a grace moment to play the burro. He’d been given the chance to work humbly and anonymously, at the back end of the beast, to usher Christ into his little corner of the world.

No doubt, the buzzards were oblivious to the subtle wisdom our Kairos brother had just shared. But we volunteers all had a different take on our day. We’d discovered once again the reason for our hope, inside the walls. As St. James reminds us in this week’s second reading:  

You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.

They say good things come to those who wait. Good things arriving, perhaps, on burro-back. And as we wait, together we pray: “Marana tha! Come, Lord Jesus.”


Jesus, give us the grace to shine Your light into our little corner of the world.

Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy & Merciful One.


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11 thoughts on “Today’s find: Buzzards & burros

  1. Mary Jost

    I love this article John. Thank you for sharing.

    • My pleasure, Mary. It’s a blessing to be involved in this ministry!

      • Gregory J. HOWELL

        Thank you John. I met you years ago at the ACTS retreat in Missouri. I was with men from Immaculate Conception of Columbia, IL. I keep up with your articles in the Marainist paper.
        Thanks for your story on John the Baptist. If I remember John was 9 months older than Christ.
        However, he us always portrayed as much older.

      • Great to hear from you, Greg, and to be reminded of the blessings we shared on the ACTS retreat!

  2. Mary I Kopuster

    Good Advent stories.

  3. David Fitzgerald

    Well done, John. It was a wonderful 2 hours spent with our inside brothers.
    I particularly appreciate your relaying the “burro butt” story because I had difficulty hearing the best part.

  4. Paul Kraus

    Well done, John! Thanks for so eloquently sharing your reflections about our reunion on Saturday.
    As we walked “the street” to the chapel, I myself was oblivious to the drizzle and dreariness, so it’s good to hear others’ thoughts and foci. I did see the turkey buzzards or whatever they call them. But I’m sure it would be no surprise to you that I was more interested in the long trailer parked behind the fence that was making much noise while providing temporary steam to heat the prison (the main boilers apparently were on the fritz). That trailer was there in October, but wasn’t yet running and so it’s function was unknown to me at that time. I’ll be curious to see how long (months? years?) this temporary power plant remains in place until the State of Illinois funds a proper repair or replacement of the heating infrastructure at Menard.

  5. Larry Choate

    This is a very well written uplifting article.
    I’m glad you were able to experience and then share about the reunion. May God bless you and your family during this special time of year. And May He continue to bless the Kairos graduates and volunteers of MCC.
    Larry Choate

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