I recently read a book called The Shepherd Cannot Run. It was the life story and letters of the Blessed Stanley Rother, a priest from Oklahoma who went to the Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala as a missionary with a group called Micatolka (Catholic Mission of Oklahoma). The religious practices of the people in this area, the Tzutuhil people who were descendants of the Maya-Quiche, ranged from staunchly orthodox Catholic to bizarre mixtures of Christianity and idol worship. Because of the entire region being conquered by the Spanish Conquistador Pedro Alvarado in 1871, the area had been without a priest for more than 100 years.
One of the quotes at the very beginning of the book says, “The Lake Atitlan area of Guatemala is a paradise and a hellhole.” So many times I have heard of prisons being described this very same way, a hellhole. The people of that area had to learn to survive any way they could and, as we all know, that is not always the right way. When Blessed Stanley Rother arrived there, he found these people broken and scared… again, not unlike those you find in prisons. When things became worse in this area and others left, he refused to leave. He refused to leave these people who were living in their own kind of prison. Although these people suffered in ways most of us cannot begin to imagine, they flocked to Father Stanley and found their greatest joy in the ability to celebrate Mass. He brought them light. I do not want to spoil the story in case you decide to read it, so I will simply say that in the face of death and tremendous adversity, Father Stanley refused to abandon these people, no matter what they did or what was going on around them.
I can so relate to the Tzutuhil people. I too have done things that I have the deepest regrets for and wish that I could somehow go back and change. Knowing that is impossible, I look for a place where I can feel the very presence of God. I look for His light. Where I can feel His love and mercy washing over me as the words of a homily are read. Feel His very presence in the Eucharist. In receiving the sacrament of reconciliation. To share with my family in Christ the hope that He gives to each of us.
The truth is we have all been in a prison of some kind. We have all been in situations or circumstances where we have felt there is no way out. Think of one of the times you have felt this way and then think of where you found the most comfort and strength. I have a feeling if you are listening to, or reading this, then you also find your greatest comfort and strength in the Lord and His presence is strongest when you are with others who also believe and want to share in His presence.
Several years ago I was taken back to my county jail for court hearings. This entailed being transferred from the prison I reside in to the jail in the city I had lived in most of my life. I had not been back there in many, many years and was scared to go at all. I did not understand what good could possibly come from my going back there, but deep inside of my spirit the Lord spoke to me, “Your ways are not my ways. Your thoughts are not my thoughts.” Whatever it was He had for me, I trusted Him. I knew that He did not give me a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and a sound mind.
Over the first few weeks that I was there, I encountered many young women who had been so broken and were so filled with shame and regret for the choices they had made. As I looked at them, I saw myself, and my heart went out to them. I wanted nothing more than to share my hope and tell them they were so very loved. They would come to my door and sit so that we could talk and I could share with them where my hope and strength came from. After a few weeks the officers at the jail asked me if I would be willing to come out and be among the women. Spend time with them, share my story of all Christ had done for me.
I cannot tell you what an honor and privilege this was for me to be able to do this, but I could not have done it had I not had people in my life who had fed me the same way. People on the outside who constantly filled me with hope and love. With the encouragement only our family in Christ Jesus can fill us with. It is a ripple effect and it can all start with you… with each of you.
Before I go, I want to ask you to imagine something for me. Imagine the darkest place you have ever been or seen. Not long ago I watched a movie about men who had been trapped in a mine and what stood out to me most was the complete and utter darkness before one of them turned on his light. The moment that that light went on, every person down there was drawn to it. It did not matter what anyone had done or not done, they were all drawn to that light. They craved that light and its nearness. This is what each of you can be for those inside: a light. I have many lights in my life and they have helped me not drown in the darkness that tries to consume us all at some point in our lives.
You are the light.
Forever In His Light,
The above reflection was written by Brittany Holberg, who is an inmate on Texas Women’s Death Row.
Join CPMC on December 1st for Restored by Compassion: Given & Received, a virtual conference to gather ministers, volunteers, and supporters of prison, jail, reentry, and detention ministries. Come listen to others’ stories of transformational ministry, rooted in compassion and the Gosepl call to accompany others. Featuring Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ, Sr. Helen Prejean, CSJ, Bp. Bill Wack, CSC, and other leaders, participants will find inspiration and meaningful opportunities to grow in their ministry and support others doing this important work.