In my short 20 years, I have served and been served communion by many different people of varying statutes and importance, but nothing has compared to being served the Feast by a prisoner.
At the end of the last school year, my friends and I were granted the Academy House to live in for our junior (and hopefully senior) year. The theme project that we put together is titled, “Connecting to the Community Through Faith.” To carry out our project, we have decided as a group to worship at different locations, learn more about different denominations, share our faith with the student body and work with St. Dysmas, the prison congregation at the State Penitentiary.
So far we have fulfilled the majority of our project for the semester, but we still needed to worship at St. Dysmas, until last week. My father, pastor Dennis, gave us the idea to worship with the prisoners. For the last 10 years he has been bringing parishioners from Mobridge, S.D. to the state penitentiary to taste a little bit of humble pie. We were lucky enough to accompany him and a few of the parishioners from my hometown to St. Dysmas two weeks ago.
As my house mates and I arrived at the prison, we were a little intimidated by the barbwire-covered walls, but we swallowed our doubts and marched through the door. After a quick orientation we were ushered through the thick metal doors that separated the prisoners from the atrium and down a narrow hallway into the auditorium that had been transformed into a place of worship, stained-glass windows and all.
During our orientation they asked us if we would sit in groups of twos and threes to assimilate ourselves better with the population. As the prisoners that wanted to worship were funneled into the makeshift church, they grouped around us. At first we were a little apprehensive but then gave way to polite chatter as anyone would do before church, but it wasn’t until after the service that we really made some connections.
The service started with some nice music performed by the prisoners that had formed a worship team. It was moving to hear the congregation sing along with such gusto and enthusiasm (something that is extremely rare in the good Lutheran congregations that I am used to) and praise Jesus.
Eventually the service came to the point of communion. I was deeply humbled as it came to my turn to receive the gift. My father was assisting with the meal and giving out bread while a parishioner of St. Dysmas was giving out the wine.
While walking away from communion I came to a solemn conclusion: we’re all sinners and saints, and no one person is better than the other in the eyes of God.
After the worship service ended, the prisoners were given about 20 minutes to mingle and converse with the guests. We were lucky enough to find Gene in the mix of prisoners thanking us for coming, shaking our hands and blessing us.
Gene had a lot to say, and that’s putting it mildly. Gene had made it out rich in the fiber-optics business, held several masters degrees, was an adjunct professor at one point in life and is deeply religious. Gene lectured us for several minutes on spirituality, the business world and our changing culture, and he asked us to read three books: The Heavenly Man, Twenty-Three Minutes in Hell and Outliers.
I could go on for several pages about what Gene taught us in those long 15 minutes, but I came to another conclusion as we were walking out. We’re all screwed up a little bit. Some of us just get a little more lost than others. Thankfully, God sent down a beacon to lead us back to the fold.