by Nancy Hastings Sehested
(Excerpt from an upcoming book of stories from work as a prison chaplain.)
Forty inmates lined up for smudging to enter the sacred circle for the Native American prayers. I spotted Genaro and a little alarm went off in my head. “Genaro, can I talk to you for a minute?” He smiled and nodded.
The shade of the building sheltered us from the blistering noonday sun and got us out of hearing range of the other men. “Genaro, you know that you must either go into the circle to smoke the pipe, or stay outside the circle by yourself. Last week I noticed that another guy sat with you outside the circle. If custody staff sees that, they assume you’re passing tobacco.”
A glint of sun struck his face as he erupted. “Who told you to say this to me? You racist like everybody. You discriminating against Latinos. I write a grievance. You pickin’ on me. Why you say to me? I just helpin’ a brother. I not passing tobacco. I got no contraband. What you say I doin’?”
He turned away, his arms flailing with each billowing Spanish word that I didn’t need a translator to understand. A dozen Latinos broke their line and encircled him. I walked closer to them, clutching my radio. Officers who could have offered assistance were inside a locked door on the other side of the building, exactly where I wanted to be at that moment. My eyes squinted as I held my gaze on the group and my finger on the radio. Genaro tapped into his anger—for him, an endless renewable energy—and he wanted others to join him.
Right: Cross necklace made from plastic bags by a prisoner.
But instead the men grabbed his thrashing arms and pulled them down by his side. One man rested a hand on his shoulder. A chorus of voices shouted through his yelling. They stopped him. He shrugged them all away and found a place in the grass to sit alone.
Crisis averted, I sat back down in the shade to watch the men offer their prayers. I offered some of my own, praying first that my heart would dislodge from my throat. By the end, I was thinking I needed to sound a warning. I was convinced that I should chide, instruct, and impress on them the dire consequences of their outbursts—and retrieve my reputation as a fair-minded person.
I asked Juan if he would translate for clarity. He agreed, but as he stepped beside me, he whispered, “Chap, could you let it go today? Jus’ let us take care of things our way. I assure you this isn’t gonna happen again. Let us deal with this brother. We’ve got our prison ways to deal with things.”
“I know some of those ways. I’ll agree on the condition that no one—and I mean no one—gets hurt. Okay?”
“Sí, sí, sí.”
It’s not my instinct, but I remained silent until we entered the building. Then I asked Genaro to come to my office. He had no choice but to follow me. He remained steely-jawed as I invited him to sit down.
“No. I stand.”
“Okay. That’s fine. Stand if you like. I just have one question. What’s your favorite song?”
He cocked his head. “What?”
I asked him again.
“John Lennon. ‘Imagine.’”
“Really?” I asked. “You’re so young.”
“Sí, but my parents play Beatles a lot in my house growing up. I always like them.”
I quickly found the song on my computer and played it.
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one
The song ended. Genaro smiled as he extended his hand for a handshake. He said, “I love you, Chaplain.”
Nancy Hastings Sehested previously served as a prisoner chaplain at a maximum security prison for men. She is also co-founder and co-pastor of Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC. ©prayerandpolitiks.org