Ministry on California’s Death Row

Ministry on California's Death Row

I lift the Blessed Sacrament for the men inside the cage to see. “This is my body, which is given for you.” These are the words spoken at the last meal of a man about to be condemned and executed by the state. God is here in this awful place—Death Row in San Quentin Prison.

There are many shadows in this building and an almost palpable air of oppression that broods over the place. The forbidding, 12-foot-high black doors labeled “CONDEMNED” at the entrance name the spirit of Death Row. There are over 720 men currently condemned to death in California—all at San Quentin. Some have been there for over 30 years.

Far more men have died of old age or suicide in the past thirty years on San Quentin’s death row than the thirteen who have been put to death by the state. Their hopelessness and despair linger in the shadows, long after the bodies are wheeled out.

Christ, the Executed Prisoner

The words of the Gospel and the sharing of Communion take on a haunting resonance on Death Row. How often do we remember that Jesus Christ was arrested, thrown in jail, put on trial, convicted, and sentenced to death? That he was given the death penalty and was executed by the state as a common criminal? So was John the Baptist. So were Peter, Paul, James, and countless followers of Christ. Christians have not been strangers to prison. But how often do Christians think of Christ as an executed prisoner?

I know Jesus was innocent, and I know what these men have done to earn a spot on death row. It took some doing on their part—often heinous, brutal crimes that are the stuff of horror movies and nightmares. But I don’t see murderers standing in front of me; I see human beings.

The “chapel” on Death Row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage. There are six wooden benches bolted to the floor for the prisoners. I stand outside their cage, padlocking myself inside my own cage as required by the department. I wear my black stab- and bullet-proof vest, which makes me the only Jesuit in my community who regularly celebrates Mass in body armor!

There is a harsh fluorescent ceiling light over me, and as I raise the host, the light illuminates it. I look at the men. They are quiet and focused. I imagine as I am standing there facing them, separated by the steel bars and padlocks, that the light of Christ is streaming forth from that host toward them, dispelling the dark shadows of “East Block”—San Quentin’s Death Row for men.

These prisoners, referred to as “condemned” by the corrections department, are acutely aware of society’s condemnation. Every day they are reminded that, in the eyes of the government, they no longer deserve to live. They live with the reality of their deaths in a way that we on the outside cannot imagine.

Mercy Greater Than Any Sin

What they seem to long for the most is forgiveness. As a priest, I bear witness to God’s forgiveness; God’s mercy is greater than our worst sins. The love and mercy of God, expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus, make forgiveness and healing possible for all of us—even the most despised and outcast members of our society. I am often moved to tears when I celebrate Mass on Death Row, where I have been given such a gift to be able to bear witness to the mercy of Christ embodied in the Eucharist.

At the “sign of peace,” we shake hands. This is the only point of physical contact with these men: they reach their hands through a 4×12-inch slot in the mesh wall to shake mine.

The corporal works of mercy are acts of life-affirming love. The death penalty, mass incarceration, even life without parole, are all life issues that Pope Francis invites us to seriously consider as we work for the dignity of the human person: “All Christians and men of good will are called today to fight not just for the abolition of the death penalty in all its forms, whether it be legal or illegal, but also the goal of improving prison conditions, out of respect of the human dignity of people deprived of their freedom” (Pope Francis, address to the International Association of Penal Law, October 2014).

There is an emotional heaviness one feels working in a prison that can easily lead one to compassion fatigue and burnout, but I find the consolation always outweighs the desolating sadness of prison. Almost every day, I encounter men and situations that make me want to cry and then, later, other situations and prisoners that are joyfully amusing. Laughter and tears—at the end of every day, I am filled with gratitude for the rich, tragic, joy-filled graces of this ministry. I cannot imagine more consoling work.

Originally published on the National Eucharistic Revival blog.

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