Greetings fellow chaplains. My name is Steven Gomez and I am a State Chaplain at Patton State Hospital. This past week for me has been a week of “connecting,” of being present in the moment and to others. This is what we do as chaplains and what we hope to facilitate. This happened, first of all, at the ACCSS Board meeting, with old and new board members coming together, and before all else, connecting with each other, so that we can support one another and work together.
I think it is interesting that most of us chaplains can describe in great detail the political divisions at our facilities amongst our incarcerated brothers and sisters, and the rules that prohibit connections and relationships. We often also know whether staff are on the same page or not. And yet it’s interesting to note that they too are watching us and our interactions as fellow chaplains: if and how we communicate, if and how we support one another, if we are willing to relay their need or message to another chaplain, how we react to something they say about a fellow chaplain, the way we cover for one another, etc.,... And so, like I said, our first task is to connect with one another. Francis of Assisi said to share our faith at all times, and if necessary to use words. So being connected and supporting one another as chaplains is a great witness to, and a way of sharing our faith, before even holding a service or group, or any words we listen to or share.
This ideal of connection also hit home with me as I visited my father, who has Alzheimer’s, at his care facility. Being with a loved one with Alzheimer’s is difficult, and yet it is an extreme facilitator of connecting in the moment - of being fully present to someone in that instance. Far too often, the past is a fleeting or disengaged memory; the current reality seems to be a blurred picture full of crossed wires, and there is no sense of the future. So there is only the present moment to connect and be together, as challenging as that can be... there is connection in a walk, in holding an arm, a smile, a hug, a meal, a repeated answer and assurance, and in the togetherness.
And so it is at times in our facilities. I remember a man with whom I visited every week. I could barely hear or understand him, and he would often resort to the same conversation that did not lead very far. There was a time when I did not make it to see him for over a month, but I wasn’t too worried as I questioned how much the visits meant to him. But when I saw him next, he let me know that he was very disappointed that I had not come for a while. And so the visits continue. And I am sure that we have all had the experience, and perhaps shared the story, of the individual who we would always “be present to” just by being in their unit or tier, or in a simple greeting or acknowledgement, and yet who was always distant, resistant or dismissive... until that time of course when they finally engaged us and opened the door to dialogue, because of those previous moments that we had connected with them, without realizing it was because of our presence. And sometimes they even shared what those moments meant to them, even if it was just their observing us consistently being there for others, or consistently acknowledging them, no matter their response.
When we connect in deeper ways, it also brings healing and enables further connection. A few days ago, I watched the movie “Lion.” It is based on a true story of a 5-year boy lost in India, who was carried far away on a train as he slept, and then facing many trials and dangers. Finally, he was helped by someone who was “different” at the place where he was housed, and eventually adopted by a loving family and blessed with a very good life. But he held the trauma and sadness of the separation from his “mum” and brother. Different from what he feared, his new family supported him in searching out and finding his birth mother. It was a touching scene as they embraced and he learned of his brother’s death. His mother is fully appreciative of the adoptive family for saving and raising her son. And in the very end, he even found out that he had been mispronouncing his name, and that his name actually meant “lion.” Very fitting.
Likewise, at our facilities, many of the men and women at some point in their young lives got lost on a train and ended up far from their families, and even from themselves. As chaplains of all the men and women at our facilities, we have the opportunity, like the woman who cared and the new family, to connect with them through our presence and activities, to help them heal, to find themselves and to reconnect with their faith and family. And with so many different nicknames, numbers and last names used, we can also help them reconnect with their true names and their true selves as sons and daughters of God.
One of the readings for the regular service this week also focused on God’s persistent seeking for connection with us, and how we can grow into recognizing this and opening ourselves up to it, especially with the help of experienced faith leaders to guide us. The reading was about young Samuel in the Temple, discerning God’s call with the help of Eli. Certainly God is very present to our incarcerated brothers and sisters and calls to them often in holy grounds of “cells” and elsewhere. God seeks to, first of all, have them know they are loved, and then to heal them. Like Eli we are there to be present to guide them and to help them recognize this call, and to enable them to grow into relationships on their own, as well as in community. But like Eli we can sometimes miss recognizing the opportunities ourselves. That is where our own lives of prayer and connection with God are key, and also where supporting and encouraging one another as chaplains help us to be at our best.
So, I hope that we all can continue to connect as fellow chaplains at our facilities, whether in formal meetings, or informally as we work near each other or cross paths, or whenever we have opportunity to gather with chaplains from other facilities and faith groups. When this occurs, let us be present to one another in the moment. Just this connection alone enables us to communicate, and better serves the people. It also bears witness to them of God’s love for all, and God’s desire for us all to be one. The ACCSS Board hopes to soon create some “regional” gathering opportunities for chaplains from different facilities in a given area. It is something we should look forward to: to being able to spend time with one another and renew ourselves, to inspire and strengthen one another, and together to give witness to the love of our Creator.
Chaplain, Patton State Hospital