Spirituality Behind Bars
The music fills the chapel and even those can’t, sing happily along belting the words out more or less in rhythm with the choir and band. The preacher soon takes the pulpit and give a sermon filled with passion talking of love and forgiveness for those who truly repent. This same scene is repeated across the country and world countless churches, synagogues, and houses of worship of every denomination and faith. There is one glaring difference here though. Every member of this congregation is a convicted felon for various reasons and were deemed too dangerous and undeserving to walk amongst free people in society. Except for the free world volunteer preacher, we all wear white uniforms here and you can’t tell visually distinguish which ones of us committed murder, assault, or maybe got caught transporting or selling some drug. There are rapists, drunk drivers, and thieves here, both in the pews and on the stage. We are, as my judge called me, the scourge of mankind. We are for the most part unloved, unwanted, and unremembered. But as I have noticed when I used to play the bass during various services, I see the same looks on the faces that I saw when I played guitar for my church in the free. I see faces filled with hope, joy, and even peace.
What could these people possibly find in here to feel joy or peace about when our lives are basically the very definition of hopelessness? Well many, as I, have looked for and found peace in the spiritual. Not religion, but spirituality. This place is a hell and the thought that there may be some redemption is uplifting and freeing for many. Being able to gather in a relatively safe place and enjoy some music is nice for me too. I am not going to lie, the air conditioning probably draws a large portion of the crowd. There is also the opportunity to see and talk to your friends that you may not get to see during the regular course of the week. This unit is fairly big and getting caught visiting someone in an area where you do not belong is a huge transgression. Everyone belongs in the chapel though. There is a lot of smiling in chapel that is unusual for all other areas of this prison.
A lot of people say the spirituality in prison is not real but done rather to earn certificates that will be looked upon favorably by the parole board. People say things like, “You didn’t go to church in the free and now you want to be all holy roller?” It is unfortunately true in many cases. In the Walls Unit in Huntsville, where they release the inmates of this region once they have served their sentence, there is a big barrel in the final room that is full of bibles that inmates have thrown away on their way out. I have not seen it personally, but have heard it described by inmates who have been freed and returned. I know the day when I am finally released will be a very happy day for me, but I will still feel a bit of sadness when I pass by that trashcan full of bibles.
On the other hand, I know many people here who have found spirituality and truly changed for the better. What better time to find the light than when in the midst of darkness? When you are at your lowest point in life, finding something to believe and hope in is often enough to change everything. Some people go to the chapel to find cool air, and find purpose instead. Sometimes a message started by a childhood visit to church is completed in a prison chapel.
As uninterested as TDCJ [Texas Department of Criminal Justice] is in helping us reform and become better people, I have to admit that there is never any shortage of activities to become involved in the chapel. There are Christian, Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, Pagan Wiccan, Jehovah’s Witness, Jewish, Native American, and even Hari Krishna groups that meet at least weekly here for services. There are every kind of studies of every kind of religion you can sign up for. People say that the only reason TDCJ allows all of this is because there are free world people who come to volunteer and would call attention to any kind of religious intolerance. The reasons don’t really matter though, I think, but the opportunities to better yourself do.
I myself am involved with the Native American group in this unit and have experienced positive things from it. I wake up at 4 am to get ready to leave my cell at 5 or 6 am and get to the chapel at around 7 to get ready for the 7:30 am service. Before being involved in chapel activities, I slept until the noise got too bad, then I sat on my bunk in my cell waiting for the day to pass so that I could draw a hash mark through another little square on my calendar. That was my high point of each day for a few years. Now I am involved with chapel’s Spanish band, the Native American service, the drama team, three veterans groups, the veterans color guard, AA/NA, and a project I just started called the Pathfinder Project. My days pass much quicker and I feel like I am doing something worthwhile and positive. I have, what is for me, a lot of time left to do before I have a chance at getting released. I can’t just hold my breath and wait to get out like I did the first few years. I have lost hope in things like appeals, exonerations, time reductions, or new legislature promising to let me out early. Disappointment after disappointment destroyed what hope I had left. You know what I have hope in now? My higher power and myself.