The Universal Church

I was blessed to go to prison on New Year’s Eve. There was an open call worship service, which meant that I was able to meet and visit with men from the general population instead of the Christian Kairos community.

Gilbert, the leader of the Benedictine Oblates, saw me and gathered a number of fellow Catholic inmates to say hello to me. Their joy in having a Catholic volunteer is a testament to the need for a greater Catholic volunteer presence inside the walls.

It was a cold night and I was wearing my Boston Marathon jacket. One of the men saw my jacket and wanted to talk about running. He ran for the United States in the 1996 Olympics. You never know who you might encounter inside the walls.

The prison band played as the men signed in for the count and entered the gymnasium, which serves as the chapel. The band looked like a response to a casting call for a Quinten Tarrentino movie. Blacks and Hispanics were mixed with former white supremists, Odinists, and East Texas buckaroos. They played popular praise and worship songs with a jazz/blues vibe. 

After everyone signed in, the band turned up the volume and picked up the meter. Many began dancing in place. The chaplain, a female Methodist minister, raised in Africa, but educated in London, joined in with a traditional African dance. The men loved it!

After the music, we heard the testimony of several men. Some described dramatic moments where the hand of an angel saved them from physical harm. Others shared stories of conversion and transformation in their spiritual journey. Still others shared short humble statements of gratitude.

This odd collection of society’s outcasts were one voice and one heart filled with joy and gratitude in the love of Christ.

The service concluded with the chaplain offering a prayer. Her prayer was the prayer the Lord commanded Moses to give to Aaron:

The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord let his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you! The Lord look upon you kindly and give you peace!

She then proceeded to offer blessings to the men in several African languages. It occurred to me that in some small way, in this corner of the universe, Isaiah’s universal prophecy was being carried out;

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

Blacks, Hispanics, white supremists, East Texas Buckaroos, Benedictine Oblates, Olympians, a Zulu Methodist pastor with a British accent…and me. The Universal Church.

The night marked not just the heartfelt celebration of the birth of Christ in the world, but the birth of Christ in our hearts.

Written by Doug Sandvig. Doug is a Knight of Malta and writes a monthly reflection for the Order of Malta Federal Association Prison Ministry.

*Please be sure to sign up for the National Association Catholic Chaplains (NACC) upcoming webinar titled “Preparing People to Provide Pastoral Care” on January 22 from 11:00pm-1:30pm. Click here to register.


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