Sunday, March 1, 2009
I arrived at the Florida State Prison at 8:30AM and went straight to the chapel. The Chaplain told me to go back to the baptismal font to be sure that it was in good working order. There had been no baptisms here for many years and the status of the font was unknown. It was a mess!. The floor of the font was covered in rust and needed to be thoroughly cleaned. It took more than an hour to clean it up and establish a flow of clean water to it. I proceeded to fill it with water so that when the priest arrived it would be ready.
The two men who were to be baptized were escorted from the Death Row to the chapel by armed guards. They were chained hand and foot and could only take very small shuffling steps. The Prison Warden had allocated one hour for the baptisms and I was praying that the font would be filled to an acceptable level before the priest’s arrival.
When the priest arrived he was escorted to the chapel and we spared no time in proceeding with the service. He layed out everything he needed and began to vest for the service. The prisoners were brought to the altar area and stood quietly waiting. There was a good kind of apprehension that could be seen on their faces as they had previously read about the Rite of Baptism and were both longing for the Grace they knew they would receive through this Mysterion. Both of these men had been in the catecumenate for about a year and had been looking forward to this day with excitement and wonder. I looked anxiously at the level of water in the font and thank God, it was finally filled.
It was interesting to observe the guards. Both were Protestant and knew nothing of the Orthodox Church. They were focused on their duties to watch the prisoners with a professional, watchful and disciplined resolve. They did not smile although they were quite courteous. You knew why they were there and, at the first, they established a certain somber tone to this unlikely gathering.
It was very quite in the chapel, which made the chanting of the priest and I more pronounced. Our voices echoed in the large room and filled it with a haunting sound that I know had never been heard there before. We began the service conscience of the precious little amount of time we had to perform the Rite but suddenly as we began, it seemed like time stopped and we calmly felt in our hearts that we had all the time we needed. All the time in the world!
Throughout the exorcisms you could see the expressions on the faces of the guards. They knew that this was a special Rite, one that they had never seen before. Their expression changed to one that was expressive of a piety deep within them that they didn’t know was there. You could feel the presence of God and but for the chanting, you could hear a pin drop in the chapel. The hair on the back of my neck stood up and the prisoners had tears of joy in their eyes.
When they entered the font, they went into the water with chains and all. At first it seemed a bit incongruous to see them entering the Baptismal Waters chained hand and foot, but as I looked with the eyes of the spirit, all I could see was men, made in the image of God, coming home to the Father’s House being washed of their sins on the way.
When the service ended, we all realized that more than an hour and a half had passed. Both of the guards stayed beyond their paid and scheduled time, without complaint. They were both more animated and spoke to both the priest and I with a genuine interest and respect, assuring us that the time didn’t matter and for us not to worry. They even bent the rules a bit by letting the priest accompany the inmates back to their cell block so that he could serve them communion.
The two newly illumined took the names of Theophan and Nektarios as their baptismal names and the looks on their faces made it all worth while. In their expressions you could almost hear the angels singing and the new life was evident in them.
This wonderful occasion took place not in an Orthodox Church, but in a Florida Prison in October of 2008. Both of these men continue to grow in their faith and pray diligently for the body of Christ. More baptisms are being scheduled and will take place soon.
Please pray for these Brothers in Christ and for those in the catecumenate, and please pray for the humble work of this ministry. There are many who contribute to this work. There are priests, monks and nuns, and volunteers who give of themselves to write to these men in prison. There are many who have donated money and books and fervent prayer for God to bless this work. Won’t you join with us as we celebrate, with humble adoration, they mighty work of Jesus in the hearts of men who have been essentially cast off from society. Many of these men have been abandoned by their own families long ago, but Our Lord has not abandoned them. He sends us to them. Won’t you please pray about coming with us, with your prayers, your donations, your precious time to write to these men? They are after all God’s Children, made with His own Hands, they are not junk! They are just like us, men who have found themselves in a Far Country, who have raised themselves up from the pig pen and are on the road back to the Father’s House. Can you not see The Father, running to them, to meet them, His Heart filled with Love and reconciliation? He wants us all to be His guests at the Banquet.
And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
In Christ’s Mercy,
Saturday, February 28, 2009
Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live forever. My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions' mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him
innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. Then was the king exceeding glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt
was found upon him, because he believed in his God.
The subject of innocence is a complicated issue. Most of us have been falsely accused at one time or another and the emotional pain that comes from this is hard to express in words. Being falsely accused however has a different level and degree of effect on different people. For some, it is an easy thing to cast off without lasting effect, but for others it is a significant spiritual and emotional challenge, that can bring a person to a deeper spiritual plane or to the depths of anger and despair.
In the prisons one hears much of innocence. Many inmates claim to be innocent of the crimes for which they have been incarcerated. I am always intrigued by the responses of people to the idea that someone, accused of a terrible crime, could actually be innocent. Even the Orthodox, who should be more sensitive to this issue make statements like; “They are where they belong”, “They have made their bed, and now they must sleep in it”, “Execution is what they deserve”. The general feeling is that it is an issue that they want to leave up to the state, they’re probably guilty, and they don’t want to think very much about it. And so, most of us “wash our hands” of the entire issue. In many ways this surprises me, because as Orthodox we have so many examples of real innocence in the lives of the saints who were falsely accused. The two examples that come to mind are; Saint Nektarios, and the central character in “The Way of the Pilgrim” Both were falsely accused and yet God permitted this painful experience to reach a part of the heart that needed to be purified by Him. The ultimate example of course is Jesus himself who was completely innocent of any crime or sin.
It is not my purpose to convey the idea that all the men in prison are innocent, because that is absolutely not so, and the law that puts them there has been given to us by God Himself;
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
We need the Police and the law and the courts and we trust them to act humanely, to act in accordance with law and to meet out justice. In any ordered society there must be consequences for sinful and unlawful acts. This system provides peace and safety for all of the peaceful and law abiding citizens. But is that what we are getting? Many times the court dockets are full, the police are overburdened, the juries are comprised of people who are angry and disgruntled that they have been chosen, and they just want to get it over with. They have jobs and like all of us they have bills that have to be paid and the court doesn’t pay much per diem for jury duty. The inmates are assigned Public Defenders who many times have little trial experience and some who have never tried a Capital Case. And sadly, many just don’t care. As Americans, we have allowed all of this to develop because we are apathetic;
"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing". Edmund Burke (1729–1797), Irish philosopher, statesman.
This system is rife with compromise and expediency, and little real justice. As Christians, we have been warned to avoid the evil that comes from this kind of ethos;
16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
59 Now the chief priests, and elders, and all the council, sought false witness against Jesus, to put him to death;
20 Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!
We live in perilous times. Many call these times the Post Christian Era. We are exposed to so much evil and compromise and fraud, that we just don’t pay attention anymore. We see the political machinations of our leaders, who seem to ascribe to platforms and goals that make us cringe as Orthodox Christians. We have become numb to it all. I am also sorry to say, that we are not immune to these shortcomings. We are responsible to face these things and take a stand as a righteous people. I am not saying that we need to start some new group or organization, we are not kingdom builders, but I am sad that as Orthodox Christians we don’t take an official stand against the Death Penalty and Abortion, but certainly as individuals we can. Let me make this clear, God desires that no one should perish…Many of us need all the time we can get for repentance. At every Liturgy, we pray; For travelers by land, sea, and air, for the sick, the suffering, the captives, and for their salvation, let us pray to the Lord. And after The Great Entrance in our petitions we pray; For the completion of our lives in peace and repentance, let us ask the Lord. This article seeks to flesh out exactly why we need to pray for the captives and that they would have all the time they need for repentance.
I could write a great deal about the corruption in our legal system and the courts especially as it relates to criminal justice, but suffice to say that it is lacking. Interestingly enough it always has been;
And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter. Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.
Yes, most of the people incarcerated are guilty, but it is important to remember that there are many innocent people in prison, and many of them will be executed. However, they are, in many ways, no different than all of us. We all have our own sins, for which we are accountable and sin is sin. There is not “good” sin and “bad” sin. We will all face judgment and we all need God’s Mercy. We all have to face the truth eventually, it’s much better if we do it now! Praying for others is not just a good thing to do but it helps us to change our perspective. It helps us to see things God’s way. It helps us to understand how much he loves each and every person on the face of the earth, and he wants no one to perish. He looks to us for our prayers;
And I sought for a man among them, that should make up the hedge, and stand in the gap before me for the land, that I should not destroy it...
Your prayers make a difference! You can help to change someone’s eternity! We are all really in the same boat. Ultimately, it is not the judgment of the State that concerns us, it is God’s Judgment. For we all have the same responsibility for Good Works and we are all subject to the same passions. The very same passions, common to man, that causes one to tell a “little white lie”, causes another to murder;
For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies:
What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one.
Prayer, repentance, forgiveness, almsgiving, forsaking deceit, cowardice and indifference, and obtaining God’s Mercy, that’s what will save us.
The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from all his sins that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die. All his transgressions that he hath committed, they shall not be mentioned unto him: in his righteousness that he hath done he shall live. Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live? ..
Can we really go to bed tonight and think only of how tired we are? Sometimes I think we would be better off in Western Civilization with a little persecution…something to goad us out of our sleepiness and slothfulness. Something to awaken us from our apathy.
People everywhere are heading for Judgment, not just in the prisons. Sadly, the devil doesn’t have to get people to shoot at us or throw us to the lions in America, he just has to put a few more new channels on our cable TV. Surprisingly, the men in prison are no different. They have basic cable in their cells. They watch TV all the time. Some of the men are like Zombie’s with their brains tuned to the junk that comes from the Boob Tube.
Statistics show that American’s watch, on average, 5 hours of TV a day (This ignores how many hours a day people spend on the computer). People have mostly stopped reading. If it’s not on video, it’s just too much trouble. We have forgotten how to think for ourselves. How sad this is, when The Lord has wisely given us advice on what we need to do;
2 Tim 2:15
5 Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
We need to be aware of what is going on in the World, but with a Godly perspective. What Fr Seraphim Rose calls “An Orthodox Worldview”
That being said, let’s take a brief look at the Criminal Justice System and what are our tax dollars are giving us. A careful look at the statistics are very revealing.
On December 31, 2005, there were 2,193,798 people in U.S. prisons and jails. The United States incarcerates a greater share of its population, 737 per 100,000 residents, than any other country on the planet.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, since 1973, 129 persons from 26 different states have been released from Death Row with evidence of their innocence. The center also shows a number of men who were executed despite evidence of their innocence. There have been many in Florida who were convicted with circumstantial evidence and then found innocent, after their executions. In 1997, Illinois halted executions when DNA testing found 52% of their death row inmates were innocent.
A study released on March 6, 2008 found that taxpayers have paid at least $37.2 million for each execution whether innocent or guilty. Can you believe tax payers are willing to pay that much money to kill an innocent person?
The length of time prisoners spend on death row in the United States before their executions has recently emerged as a topic of interest in the debate about the death penalty. The discussion increased around the execution of Michael Ross, a Connecticut inmate who had been on death row for 17 years, and has been spurred by the writings of two Supreme Court Justices who have urged the Court to consider this issue.
Death row inmates in the U.S. typically spend over a decade awaiting execution. Some prisoners have been on death row for well over 20 years. During this time, they are generally isolated from other prisoners, excluded from prison educational and employment programs, and sharply restricted in terms of visitation and exercise, spending as much as 23 hours a day alone in their cells. This raises the question of whether death row prisoners are receiving two distinct punishments: the death sentence itself, and the years of living in conditions tantamount to solitary confinement – a severe form of punishment that may be used only for very limited periods for general-population prisoners. Moreover, unlike general-population prisoners, even in solitary confinement, death-row inmates live in a state of constant uncertainty over when they will be executed.
For some death row inmates, this isolation and anxiety results in a sharp deterioration in their mental status. When the constitution was written, the time between sentencing and execution could be measured in days or weeks. A century later, the Supreme Court noted that long delays between sentencing and execution, compounded by a prisoner’s uncertainty over time of execution, could be agonizing, and resulting in “horrible feelings” and “immense mental anxiety amounting to a great increase in the offender’s punishment.” (In re Medley, 1890, as cited in Foster v. Florida, 2002).
But in the wake of the Supreme Court-mandated suspension of the death penalty from 1972 to 1976, numerous reforms have been introduced to create a less arbitrary system. This has resulted in lengthier appeals, as mandatory sentencing reviews have become the norm, and continual changes in laws and technology have necessitated reexamination of individual sentences. Death-penalty proponents and opponents alike say such careful review is imperative when the stakes are life and death. “People are adamant . . . that every avenue should be exhausted to make sure there is no chance (the condemned) are not guilty,” former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers said in 2001. “The surer you are, the slower you move.” (Atlanta Constitution, October 27, 2001). The years it takes to carry out a death sentence exact a huge toll – on taxpayers, victims’ families and inmates themselves. Yet without thorough appeals, mistakes in death penalty cases would be missed.
Psychologists and lawyers in the United States and elsewhere have argued that protracted periods in the confines of death row can make inmates suicidal, delusional and insane. Some have referred to the living conditions on death row, the bleak isolation and years of uncertainty as to time of execution, as the “death row phenomenon,” and the psychological effects that can result as “death row syndrome.”
Yet in spite of these staggering statistics, in spite of the horrible conditions found in the prisons, men respond to the Love of God and embrace the Gospel. Men from dysfunctional family backgrounds, lives of crime, years of drug and alcohol abuse , false christian teaching and yes even false imprisonment, enter the Catecumenate and are Baptized into the Orthodox Church.
In St. Seraphim’s Fellowship, I believe that God has given us the Grace to see these men as human beings, that He still so dearly loves. Sure, most of these men are where they should be, but God wants to save their souls. I have been in Prison Ministry for more than ten years. This is what we do. :
•Regularly visit more than 400 men on Florida’s Death Row. (It takes more than eight hours to walk down the cell fronts and visit and pray for about half of these men.)
•We pass out books and bibles to everyone and pray with them regardless of faith or church affiliation.
•We send out letters each week to men interested in Orthodoxy. These letters are written in order to help men come to understand about true repentance and learn of the passions. After the letters are sent these men are visited and questions are answered.
•Several inmates are currently in the catecumenate, and others have indicated an interest.
•Two more inmates are being scheduled for Baptism into the Orthodox Church in October, 2008.
In a balanced review of the above facts, it is important to remember that generally speaking, the men who are incarcerated in State Penitentiaries are masters of manipulation. They are con-men par excellance. They are very good at getting you to believe them about almost anything.
Ok, they are capable of manipulation, but there are exceptions. Even in the everyday world that we all live in, we are subjected to news articles that cause us to jump to conclusions about facts and people, and we judge them without knowing all the facts. Sometimes we are wrong!
I know of an Orthodox woman who had a business for more than fourteen years and enjoyed an excellent reputation who in an effort to update her business installed a new back-end accounting software program that was responsible for charging a customers credit card several thousand dollars for services obtained by a different client. The customer called her bank about the inappropriate charge and the bank called in the police. The police, who thought they had discovered real criminal activity, called all of the local media, TV Stations, Newspapers, etc. and invited them all to be present, with cameras and all, when the poor woman was arrested. The check to reimburse the bank for the errant charge was sitting on her desk to be mailed when the police and the whooped-up media circus arrived. In this case, it took more than five years to sort out all the facts and finally the woman was pronounced innocent, after her life was practically ruined and her business was forever lost.
Imagine, that you have been falsely accused of a horrible crime. The crime you have been accused of slaps the average person in the face with indignation and ire at the audacity and lack of Christian morals that you display in your supposed crime against humanity.
You suddenly become an example to everyone of what not to be in life. The antithesis of good. An evil that cries out to be expunged from society and even life itself. No one believes you when you say you are innocent. They think you are simply afraid of execution, or you are simply trying to “work” the system for your own benefit. The story of your crime is plastered all over the news media, the reporters refer to you as a bug that needs to be squashed and all of the people are shaking their heads in shame for you, because you don’t have enough soul to realize the gravity of what you have done, on your own. The consensus is that the world will be a better place without you.
Somehow, you never hear anyone say; “There but for the Grace of God, go I” Actually, it seems that in this judgmental mindset, that is so common, we somehow feel better about ourselves. There seems to be something inside of us that drives us to find somebody else guilty of something, almost anything! Somehow it makes us feel justified. It helps us to feel like the innocent victims. I am reminded of what Adam said;
And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat.
We all want to be innocent, and we suspect we are the only ones.
This brings me to one of the reasons that I have for having written this article. There is a man in the prison that I visit regularly, his name is Thomas. Thomas has been on the Death Row for three years. I have been visiting with him for just over one year. We have had some long talks and he has been in the catecumenate since last December. He has learned much about himself and has recognized the patterns in his life that have been born of the passions in his soul. Thomas is from an Episcopalian background and has his parents and family’s support in his journey to Orthodoxy. In October, he will be baptized into the Orthodox Church along with another man, Norman, also from Death Row. Both Norman and Thomas have been waiting for this day for about a year.
I have been waiting for this day as well. I pray for these men and I am genuinely excited for them. In spite of the horrible conditions in which these men live, they have come to the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. They are getting on board the Ark. They have focused their attention and their hearts desire on God’s will.
But neither them nor I can let down his guard in here. It is important to stay alert. I do a lot of praying before I come into this prison as the devil does quite a bit of his work here. Many days, you can feel it. The hair on the back of your neck stands up and you feel a perturbed feeling in the air. Just like it is before a bad storm or an earthquake. It gets real still, then you can hear dogs barking, there is a ominous feeling in the air. It’s like that, you know you have to be alert; you have to expect the unexpected.
The prison is a place almost totally devoid of hope where only a few faces can manage a smile, and then only reluctantly. You can see and feel the fear and resentment in every corner; it hangs in the air and makes it heavy. It clings to you like sweat on a hot and humid day. The presence of evil can be felt like static electricity in the air.
It is also a place of stark, harsh and hard sounds. Metal clanging against metal. A scream from one whose medication has worn off. The din of much mindless banter between cells. Boots on hard floor. The dull rattle of chains. Even the words heard here are hard and oppressive, much cursing and swearing. The atmosphere is filled with pungent, all too familiar odors. The temperatures in this place are always at the extreme. Sometimes it is so hot that your clothing sticks to you because of the sweat, but most of the time it is cold, so very cold. The men there wrap up in their one, thin blanket in an effort to keep warm. The officials like to keep it cold because they say it cuts down on the violence.
There is no privacy here. Sinks and toilets are open to the cell fronts, showers have no doors, and guards walk the men in chains to the shower and then observe to keep the peace. The men live in a 6’ by 9’ cell. It is made of concrete and steel. The walls are stained with oils from the skin of present and former residents. There is depressing graffiti on some of the walls, mostly scratched into the concrete with fingernails. The narrow bed, which is nothing more than a shelf, is made of hard and cold steel. Some of these men have lived in these cells for 30 years. They get little mail if any. Most of these men have been abandoned by their families, and no one ever visits them. This horrible place, that echoes the shrill and evil laughter of the devil himself, is the Death Row of the Florida State Penitentiary.
After many conversations and much prayer, I have come to the personal conviction that Thomas is innocent of the crime for which he has been condemned to death. He has told me the story of what happened that brought him to Death Row. The truth is that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong motives, doing the wrong thing, but I don’t believe that he is guilty of the murder for which he has been accused. Many of the prison guards have the same opinion. His fate depends on the testimony of the man who was with him at the time of the crime who has subsequently been sentenced to life in prison. All of this is being presented to the courts in the latest round of appeals, and Thomas will soon know the decision of the court.
To me, what is important however, is his soul. Thomas has been able to recognize the patterns in his life than have been born of the passions. He has sincerely demonstrated his repentance and is preparing for his “lifetime” confession. He knows and acknowledges that God has permitted this whole thing to happen in his life for the purpose of getting his attention and saving his soul. Thomas is resolved to whatever may happen in the courts, and wants only to become part of God’s Family. He has turned his life completely over to God. He needs our prayers. Great indeed is the Baptism which is offered to these men.
It is a ransom to captives; the remission of offenses; the death of sin; the regeneration of the soul; the garment of light; the holy seal indissoluble; the chariot to heaven; the luxury of paradise; a procuring of the kingdom; the gift of adoption. Saint Cyril tells us, the Mystery of Baptism transforms the entire person body and soul, so that after Baptism we embrace a new life, spiritually restored to the state of innocence and purity for which God created us.
Every sin is washed away by Baptism and every demon which has a hold on our hearts is literally drowned in the Baptismal waters.
Immediately after coming up from the water of regeneration, before we even have an opportunity to think a sinful thought, we are sealed with the Gift of the Holy Spirit by the anointing of Holy Chrism. This anointing is not a mere symbolic gesture, but as Saint Cyril says, “...to you not in a figure, but in truth; because ye were truly anointed by the Holy Ghost..For this holy thing is a spiritual preservative of the body,and a safeguard of the soul.”
While the courts decision is still unknown, it’s probable that neither Thomas nor Norman will ever get a chance to attend a real Church Liturgy. They will never smell the incense nor hear the bells, nor hear the sound of the Talanton calling them to worship. They will never hear the beautiful haunting nuances in Byzantine Chant. They will never taste the Artoclasia after a Vigil, They will never be part of a procession at Pascha nor see the lights of the candles fill the church, and yet, they will be part of the Body of Christ. A living cell that the Body can’t do without, yearning for the life and light that flows from other cells in the body. St. John Chrysostom tells us that; “When a man, out of necessity, cannot go to church, he can make himself into the altar through prayer”. This is the connection that these men need to make. This is the charge that they have been given, the call to which they have been forcefully lead. Their entire lives, up to now, have been determined by their actions, but their futures are being changed by Grace through Holy Baptism, through a new life of repentance and Monologistic prayer. They have much in common with monastics, but they must come to a place where they embrace this reality and accept this difficult and sequestered life on Death Row with love for God and man, true humility and patience for the work that God is doing in them. Oh Lord, that we will pray for them and encourage them, as the Body of Christ.
And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose…. I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, Nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
St. Seraphim’s Fellowship is located in Jacksonville, Florida. Members of our fellowship write letters to the prisoners and pray for them regularly. We need your help. Please pray for the prisoners and for our volunteers. Contact us at Seraphim8@att.net or write to St. Seraphim’s Fellowship, P.O. Box 351656, Jacksonville, Fl. 32235-1656 for more information about how you can help this ministry.
In Christ's Mercy,
Friday, February 27, 2009
Redeeming the time
Masters, give unto your servants that which is just and equal; knowing that ye also have a Master in heaven. Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving; Withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds:
That I may make it manifest, as I ought to speak. Walk in wisdom toward them that are without, redeeming the time. Let your speech be alway with grace, seasoned with salt, that ye may know how ye ought to answer every man.
The following is what transpired in one day at the Florida State Penitentiary, by the Grace of God.
It was a very hot day! Around 101 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The humidity was high and both the priest and I had beads of sweat on our foreheads. As we approached the ominous building, the main entrance gate to the Florida State Prison began to open automatically, apparently controlled by some unseen guard. After going through the first gate we stood in a completely fenced in area surrounded by huge thick rolls of razor wire 12 feet high facing a second steel gate. The first gate closed behind us. Only when the first gate was completely closed, did the second one open to us. We walked up the steps and entered the
double doors only to be confronted by another steel barred gate. This one lead to a counter where two guards worked behind thick bullet proof glass. Here we identified ourselves and the guards checked a list for our names. Warden Bryant had already made arrangements for us to be permitted entry on this date. We were coming to administer the Sacraments to an inmate incarcerated on the Death Row. Today, he would be received into the Orthodox Church.
We entered our personal codes into the hand biometric imprint machine and then placed our right hand on the plate where a scan was made of our entire hand in order to verify our identities. Then another barred steel gate opened where we had to empty our pockets and pass through a very sensitive metal detector. Once we were cleared, another series of barred steel gates opened a path down a long corridor that ended at yet another steel gate. This one was next to a control room where many guards behind the thick glass made another check of our entry documents and pressed the buzzer to open the gate to another area that was totally barred in. There were entry gates going in three different directions, we waited for the gate on the right to slowly open with the now familiar sound of metal on metal. Ahead of us was a long hallway with thick steel doors on either side marked with letters A,B,C etc. We were headed for “Q” wing so we had a long walk. Along the way, guards were stationed at some of the wings and you could see racks along the walls where chains with handcuffs and feet restraints were hanging, waiting for their next use. The inmates are always fettered hand and foot with these chains when they are moved anywhere within the prison. We finally arrived at “Q” and waited for the guard to turn the lock on the outside of the door. Then we waited for the inside guard to place his key into his side of the lock to allow our entry into the wing.
The “Q” wing is a part of the Death Row. On the upper floors of this wing, are those inmates that have shown themselves to be a danger to anyone and everyone and are kept behind solid steel doors with no bars, and only a 12” square of very thick
bullet proof glass with small holes drilled through it so that conversation can take place. Few people are allowed to visit these men. The basement of this wing contains only three cells and the Death Chamber.
We were escorted down the stairs where we were confronted by another barred entry and a lone guard sitting behind a desk. He was expecting us, so he let us in to his area where we signed the registry and were permitted through another gate into the Death Watch Cells. We were greeted by Mark, he was expecting us and very glad to see us. Mark has been on the Death Row for more than 17 years. He was raised a Baptist and his father is an ordained Baptist Minister. He and I have been talking every week for the last 7 months. I have acted as his friend and catechist and have introduced him to the Orthodox Church. I have been able to bring him many books and have sent him a series of letters on repentance that introduce one to the reality of the passions. We would talk every week about some aspect of our faith and we have come to know each other pretty well. In anticipation of our visit here today, I had previously brought Mark documents on the Rite of Chrismation and a book to help him prepare for his confession.
The priest used a table in front of the cell to lay out everything he needed for the administration of this Mysterion. After he lit a candle in front of the icon on the little table, he approached Mark in order to hear his confession and I stepped back and talked with the guard until they were finished.
This prison is a giant concrete and steel box that just bakes in the sun. There is no air conditioning and it is like an oven inside, it is filled with an ominous heat in the summer and an unbearable cold in the winter. We were all sweating profusely as we began the sacrament.
The presence of God was very noticeable. I was surprised that in this terrible place, this man created hell, all you could feel was God’s presence. The Scriptures began to jump into my mind and heart; Luke 15:10 Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.
Ps 139:7-11 Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there. If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; Even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me. If I say, Surely the darkness shall cover me; even the night shall be light about me.
I watched the countenance on Mark’s face change. It was shining and he was at peace. When we left, I knew the Angels were rejoicing in heaven and one newly illumined could face death knowing all of his sins had been forgiven. For the next thirteen days, Mark would be prayed for by a great number of priests and
monks. Some of these men would write to Mark, welcoming him into the Orthodox Church and exhorting him to be on guard, to be alert and watchful and to pray unceasingly until his execution. Mark’s name was also given to five prison
inmates, in another State who were tonsured monks by Metropolitan Isaiah. These men would write to Mark as well and offer him encouragement and direction. Mark was to be executed in thirteen days on July 1st.
After this wonderful day, I received a personal letter from Mark. It was the last letter he ever wrote. He addressed me as Jimmy in the letter. Oddly, no one has ever called me by that name except my family when I was a little boy. Here is the letter;
June 16, 2008
Hey, it’s Jimmy Blackstock! What’s going on my friend? I’m hoping you are doing well. I’m doing okay. I wanted to drop you a few lines and let you know how much I appreciate everything you have done for me. All that time you spent with me over on “G” Wing. Teaching me and opening my eyes. God does definitely work in mysterious ways. I am very thankful to have met you.
The Chrismation ceremony was a very moving experience. It gave me a real sense of “belonging” on so many different levels. Most importantly that I belong to God. Every time you said “SEALED”, I felt a real sense that my friend was turning me over to God. I don’t know why I was so nervous about Confession. As it turned out there was no need to be. It was a very emotional experience, but uplifting. And when Father said I was absolved of my sins, I could “feel” it. And then Communion. It was all a very awesome experience. And you led me to that glorious experience. And I thank you. All of my appeals are exhausted, so I want to take this opportunity now to tell you how much I appreciate all that you have done for me my friend. Thank you. And God Bless you.
Mark was executed on July the 1st at 6:00PM There were 37 people who witnessed the execution, mostly press. Mark was very quiet (saying the Jesus Prayer) and compliant. When he was placed on the gurney, he just looked up. They had to try twice to find a vein. He had no final words. When the State of Florida began the lethal injection, the sodium pentothal put him to sleep and then they administered the lethal drugs that stopped his heart. His mouth opened slightly and he turned very pale. He was pronounced dead at 6:12PM.
Among the witnesses, was the family of the victim. They showed little emotion and I pray that they will find closure and forgiveness for Mark. I know that this poor family went through a living hell and I can only pray that somehow God will grant them peace and forgiveness in their hearts. The articles that appeared in the papers and the reports on Network News are very matter of fact. They inform people as to the terrible and heinous crime that Mark committed, and it was, but nothing is ever said about how someone may have come to repentance and new life. Mark was truly a different person than he was seventeen years ago. His life and his eternal future were changed. The World looks down on someone who “finds religion” in prison, especially one who is to be executed. We are told the darkness of the evil he perpetuated but that is only half of the story. You now know the “rest of the story”.
There were many outside the prison who were demonstrating both for and against the Death Penalty. Some were holding up signs to forgive and others where holding up signs that said “Rot in Hell” but it will always be like that! A sick and dying world, filled with passion, blindly heading for their own time of death. Me, I had a song in my heart…Eonia I Mnimi, eonia I mnimi, eonia afto mnimi May his memory be eternal!
There are 388 men on Florida’s Death Row. I visit them all and minister directly to more than fifty of them. There are four more inmates awaiting Baptism now. All of these men need your prayers, and I need your prayers. I am the only Orthodox man who visits these Death Row Inmates. Many times it is a challenge and I am faced with many difficult questions by the inmates and even the chaplains of the institution. Most of the men incarcerated here are Southern Protestants who have nothing to do but read and memorize the Bible. I have never met so many experts in religion as I have in the prisons. I have to be prepared to answer questions from men from many different backgrounds; Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Pentecostals and Catholics to name a few. I also encounter Zen Buddhists, Moslems and Pagans. Many times I have no idea what to say to these men, but I keep coming back, every week, and after a while they start to open up to me. I do some serious praying before I enter one of these institutions, because I know that this is the devils house and he doesn’t like to lose one of his own.
I am really no different than most of you. You are perhaps the only hope for many in your life to learn about Jesus. Not from your words necessarily, but from your life. What they see in you. We are so rich in Orthodoxy, we have very deep Truth and we have Dogma, but what are we, as individuals, doing about it? We have many challenges in this age of pluralism. We have challenges in unity, in ethnic churches, in ecumenism, but the biggest challenge we face is ourselves. Obviously we are filled with passions and we need virtues. We are filled with opinions with convictions and with polemics born of the flesh. It does no good to be filled with right ideas and convictions and suffer from spiritual constipation. With all my heart, I encourage you to act on your Faith. Reach out to your neighbor, invite them to Liturgy, mow the lawn for them if they are under the weather, give them a book to read, but most of all, pray for them. Let them see the light in you. Many of the people you know will go to hell!
A monk once told me a story of a vision beheld by some elder and I am afraid I cannot remember who it was, but the image, that was born of this story remains in me. The Elder saw the trees in the Fall of the year and said that the leaves that fell from the trees were as the souls of men who were going to hell. There are very few leaves that remain on any trees in the Fall, most fall to the ground. This idea is held up in our Holy Scriptures;
Enter ye in at the strait gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.
According to the CIA World Fact book, as of July, 2005, there were approximately 6,446,131,400 people on the planet, and the death rate was approximately 8.78 deaths per 1,000 people a year. According to my desktop calculator, that works out to roughly 56,597,034 people leaving us every year. That's about a 155,000 deaths a day. Most of these people will go to Hell. Does your heart not break for them? In another place God tells us;
Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision: for the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision.
God always answers our prayers for someone’s salvation. If for some reason a person is living a life without God and is not in a position to receive God’s Grace, then God puts those prayers in a Bank. When the time comes that that person’s heart opens, then God draws those prayers out of the Bank and floods that person with Grace. These prayers are always efficacious.
As Orthodox Christians we are to be salt and light. Ask yourself, am I salt and light to my neighbor, friends, boss, family and even strangers.
7 Then saith he unto his disciples, The harvest truly is plenteous, but the labourers are few;
8 Pray ye therefore the Lord of the harvest, that he will send forth labourers into his harvest.
Brothers and Sisters in Christ, pray for me as I pray for you.
St. Seraphim’s Prison Fellowship is located in Jacksonville, Fl. We need volunteers to write letters to prisoners and to pray. Please contact us for information and details about how you can help.
In Christ’s Mercy,
James (Seraphim) Blackstock
St. Seraphim’s Fellowship: P.O. Box 351656 Jacksonville, Fl 32235-1656