Gina lived for a number of years in Brixton; she has now moved to Southwark, from where she continues her prison chaplaincy.
Three days a week, after an early breakfast before prayer time and the morning office in our house chapel, I set off on an hour’s commute to West London to Wormwood Scrubs Prison where I am a chaplain. Once I have a seat on the tube I briefly scan the Metro free paper then settle down to some spiritual reading as I want to use the time profitably and being stuck on a tube actually helps to concentrate my mind.
Every day as a chaplain is different because every encounter is different, but every day the chaplaincy team has to cover certain “statutory duties”: we visit every newly arrived inmate to tell them about chaplaincy, check how they are and offer them pastoral support; we visit the health care unit and the segregation unit and respond to applications from inmates to see a chaplain.
Because Heathrow is in our catchment area a high proportion of the inmates are foreign nationals. Sometimes they have tried to smuggle drugs into the country in order to raise the funds to buy medicines for sick relatives or to feed and educate their children and now find they have plunged their families into even deeper trouble. It isn’t unusual for prisoners under great stress to have thoughts of suicide or to self harm, and one of my particular responsibilities is to offer chaplaincy support to them at these times. My writ crosses all denominational and faith divides but my visits are nearly always welcomed, and our conversations often turn to God and end in prayer.
I always wear my habit to work. The men may not be too sure exactly what I am –“What are you miss, are you a monk?” But the habit speaks of approachability, it says “here is someone you can trust, someone who will listen and not pass judgement, someone who will pray.”
Prison chaplaincy is the most demanding and the most rewarding work I have ever done. On the commute back home I close my eyes and relinquish each of the people I have met back into God’s care, grateful that in visiting them I have visited Jesus. I am also grateful that I don’t have to carry the burden of those often draining sessions alone, but do it with the support of my community around me. Normally someone else will have prepared supper, and, after the evening office, over the meal, I have the opportunity to share my day and, if needs be, to offload. As well as the harrowing there are the humorous anecdotes of the day, an opportunity to “delight in laughter and good fellowship.” (Principles Day 28) Recently a prisoner had laboriously written out the creed for his friend. Spelling wasn’t his forte and he had written “He suffered under punches Pilate.” There must be a sermon in that somewhere!
At night prayer we pray for those who are sleeping on our streets, the addicted and those in particular need. I pray for those behind bars that they may know God’s forgiving and renewing presence.