By Acharya Samaneti
Chaplaincy is something that we learn with time and we fine tune in accordance to our experiences, our victories, our mistakes, etc.
It is something that takes time and is always evolving. I have caught myself getting entangled in trying to create complex intervention plans, getting lost in the many lists and teachings—trying to make sure that I encompass all the teachings from the Buddha. There are moments however, where you are reminded that the greatest impact can come from simple, human presence.
Prison is a horrible place—a real hell on earth—a place where one can easily lose its humanity and fall into a disconnected (with others as well as themselves) state of being that slides further and further away from our shared humanity and the kinship that holds all of us together. I believe more and more that the main role that I hold in my prison is exactly that, presence.
Yes, just my physical presence, but simply by being there and refusing to forget my humanity, the humanity of the men that I serve and the humanity of my colleagues.
I become an integral part in the rehabilitation of the incarcerated. I remind them every day of their best selves, even if the system is there to remind them over and over of their worst selves. I remind them that there is someone that refuses to give up on them and tries to remind them every day that they are still worth fighting for, that they still deserve to be loved.
I will never forget one morning a few years ago, I was sitting at my desk at the chapel having a cup of coffee and feeling a little discouraged. It had been a violent week, most of the days the institution was closed, and I was not able to have my scheduled interviews with the men. It was making me wonder what I was doing just hanging out in the prison and not doing my job. As I am reflecting on this and I hear a knock at my door; I open it and there is an inmate standing in front of me with his “bag” of clothes and huge smile on his face.
He said “I just wanted to thank you for everything that you have done, I am transferring today and I just had to tell you good bye in person and let you know that you really helped me out.”
I was kind of puzzled; I had never met with him. I see a lot of people but I am really good with faces and this was a face that I knew, but it was not because we met in my office or the chapel. I knew him from the halls, every morning when I went to pick up my mail. I would see him and say hi to him and have a little small talk (“beautiful day” or, “so happy the sun is shining this morning,” etc). But that was it.
He explained, “every morning when I left the range to go work I would see you. You would always look at me in the eyes, smile, and wish me a good day. Every day I walked in those halls, no one looked at me; they did not acknowledge me—except you. When I was missing my wife or my kids, when I felt alone, when I felt like my humanity and my connection to those dear to me was fading, you were there to say hi and make me feel normal for a brief moment. I remember that some days you were late to get your mail and I would walk slower to make sure that I could see you. You helped me through my days…every day.”
That morning I wish him all the best, went back into my office and sat down. That feeling of questioning my purpose faded, and I realized that sometimes our work is in the little things, in the human connections that we develop and maintain, or for those that I am not even aware.
This morning I took a few minutes to chat with the cleaner of the SHU, something I do everyday, just one of those special moments in my daily routine in these empty, cold, hard, concrete hallways. We always start off with a “Good morning sir,” and we then encourage each other to have a positive day no matter what may happen in the future.
He once shared with me how much he appreciates being called sir, that he feels for a quick moment that he is no longer a criminal but a respected person. He said that I give him a moment of relief. One word liberates him from the suffering that he embodies, even if it temporary.
We are able to see the power of being able to simply welcome people, in their messiness and suffering without judgment and with compassion.
This little conversation is a tender moment in a hard and unforgiving place. I see his excitement as I walk down the long empty hall on my “down” to the SHU—he waits with his cart and with a smile that is seen through his mask. These are my favourite moments.
Yesterday I was heading out to my car, walking behind one of the psychologists; as we left the prison she looked at me and asked if I was the chaplain. I politely answered yes. She told me that she had seen me on television a little while back and she felt that it was a privilege to be able to get to know me better through my participation. She said that she really appreciated my way of looking at life and the work that I did with the men; she was reassured to know that I was there to sit with them, to listen to them without judgement, and that I was a human presence that gave them a break from system. I was a true refuge for them and that made her feel better when she met with the same men.
So, sometimes the best thing that we can do to help others is to simply live the teachings and translate them into our day-to-day thoughts and actions.
We can get caught up trying to impose how we think people can benefit from our presence and work, but they are the only people who really know what they need most. It’s like what Father Greg Boyle, inspired by Pema Chodron, says, “ the truest measure of compassion lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
I always tell the people I work with, “I am not here to save you, I am simply here to accompany you along this path.”
I believe that I can simply be a wise friend to them, because that is what they need during this difficult time.
“Do not walk in front of me, I will not follow.
Do not walk behind me, I will not lead.
Just walk next to me and be my friend.” – Unknown
Editor: Dana Gornall
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