Vignettes from Jail

Norman Collier is the Chaplain at the Agassiz Youth Centre and an Anglican Priest. The following is a set of powerful snapshots of conversations and interactions from his experiences.
Sometimes the things he says are beautiful. He says he can see God in the sky, the snow, the trees. In another age, we might have called him a mystic.
But sometimes the things he says are troubling. God is speaking in his head and telling him to do things. He jumps up on chairs and laughs at nothing at all. He is disarmingly intense.
There is medication for these mystical outbursts, but the medication saddens him. When he takes the medication, he can no longer hear God. He says when he takes the medication the sun no longer shines on his brain.
* * * * * * *

Photo: I am Purple

Joe is back in jail after being in the community for only four weeks.
“When I got home,” he says, “My mom and dad were strung out on the couch. High. There was no food in the cupboards, no clothes in my closet, no soap in the bathroom, no money in the house. So in order to get food I had to get money, and to get money I had to start selling drugs again. That’s when I got picked up.
“When I was in here, I learned how to change. I really wanted to change. But you know what? Nothing had changed out there.”
* * * * * * *
The young boy is about to be released, to walk through the big metal gates into freedom, with all its promise and all its danger.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m in here because I was told to attack the next person I saw on the street. It was an old man, and I hit him with a board. That was my initiation into my gang. It was wrong, and I don’t know how to make it right.”
“When you get home, I want you to find an old person who lives on your street – any old person will do. I want you to think of something kind to do for that person. Maybe shovel his steps, or carry a heavy bag for him. Maybe smile at him when you walk by. Do something nice instead of something awful.”
“How long will I have to do that for?”
“You will know when you’ve done it long enough.”
* * * * * * *
Sometime it feels like I spend more time talking about the devil than about God.
“Do you believe in the devil, Mr. Collier?”
“Do you believe in hell?”
“Satan was in my dream the other night.”
“Have you ever read the Satanic bible?”
It suddenly dawned on me. They see themselves as lost. They feel spiritually rejected. They believe they are damned. They have concluded that they have no right to ask anything of God.
* * * * * * *
“Congratulations!  You’ve won a prize in the chaplaincy art contest!”
No smile. “OK.”
“A cheque for $25 will be deposited in your account.”
No smile. “OK.”
“You’ll get your picture back from the judges in about four weeks.”
No smile. “OK.”
“You’re the only winner from Agassiz. You’ve done very well.”
No smile. “OK.”
Afterwards, his teacher asks me, “Did he at least smile?”
No. No smile. Never.
Together, we wonder what secret, what fear, what assault has robbed him of joy. What pain, what loss, what evil has shut him down? Where is his soul? Perhaps his soul is in his art.
* * * * * * *
John wants to go to church.
A decision like this involves many layers of management, pages of applications, endless faxes to outside agencies, and a long list of rules and conditions. But the approval comes, and John can go to church on Thanksgiving weekend.
He’s not sure what church to attend, so we pick the closest one we can find. He will have to walk there on his own, and he will only be allowed two hours away from the institution. His taste of freedom will be quick, but it will be enough.
As I walk along the street toward the church, I can see him ahead of me. He walks like any teenager who happens to be in a gang – full of indifference and swagger and ownership and attitude. But then, suddenly, unexpectedly, unaware of my presence and lost in the solitude of freedom, he begins to skip like a little boy. He can see himself reflected in the store windows along the street. He stops to look at himself, and then continues skipping down the avenue.
It is a moment of grace on this Thanksgiving weekend. For a brief moment, he is himself. It is the goal of all our work. It is a gift. It is worship.


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