Ashes in Prison.

Chaplaincy, Theology

Now that I am no longer at the prison, I can reflect on some strong memories I have from there. Ash Wednesday is of particular note.

There hadn’t ever been an Ash Wed service before. It was not because there was not a need, there just had not been the energy to make it happen. In the prison system, everything runs according to a very strict, rigid schedule. Deviation from the standard, “schedule of calls” throws off the day and usually is not very helpful. The downside of this kind of rigidity is that being spontaneous and creative just makes a mess of the day, is frowned upon, and often just cannot happen. The upside is an extreme amount of predictability in my workday and the fact that while it was hard to change the schedule, once the change happened, it became an embedded part of the work day very quickly. That schedule of calls was a bit like the “law of the Medes and Persians.”

In order to make an Ash Wednesday service happen, I looked at the schedule and for reasons I do not remember, it couldn’t take place in the evening so I planned it for the opposite end of the spectrum, 0730-0800.

This meant that the prisoners would come to chapel instead of work call, attend service and then return to work after. One of the interesting impacts of this which I was not planning or intending for was that myself and my inmates were getting ashes on our foreheads at the beginning of the day. There is something very spiritually significant about “bearing the cross” all day long. Going to work, lunches, visiting, and interacting with my Soldiers while wearing an ashen cross. Over and over, every year I was at the prison, I would need to explain why “my forehead was dirty” or what Ash Wed was. Inmates who chose to come to service and wear the cross had to do so very publicly.

It put “bearing the cross” in a whole new light.

Not only was it a reminder of our own frailty and humanity, it was also a testimony to the Gospel. It took some courage to bear the cross.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Remember you are from dust and to dust you will return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

The first year, I was able to coordinate a service with our Catholic Deacon that provided pastoral care to Catholic inmates. This made the service truly eccumenical and helped to emphasize that in the Family of God, we can come together to recognize our shared humanity.

The second year, the power was out, the correctional specialists had switched to 12 hour shifts and the service had been lost in all the movement. I showed up that morning and was greeted by emergency lighting and the inmates were all still in their housing areas.

(side note: in military prisons, every inmate had a job. Every day is the same. Your cell pops open at 0500, breakfast soon after and by 0730, everyone is at work. Everyone goes to work, every. single. day. Therefore, the only time anyone is able to sleep in is Saturday and Sunday. Even then, you can’t really “sleep in” as wake up and breakfast always happen at the same time. However, you can go back to bed after breakfast if there is no work call. So when work call is cancelled and you have the opportunity to sleep a bit, it makes for a very quiet prison…)

So I had it put out over the sound system that there would be Ash Wed services that morning. I really didn’t expect much participation as work call had been cancelled and most everyone was taking advantage of the time to sleep away their time and to top it off, the Deacon could not come because of the weather.

But after putting out the word, the doors to the housing areas opened and out came inmate after inmate, filing into the chapel where we, with emergency lighting and no instruments, had our service of penitence and reflection.

The final Ash Wed service was a year ago today. I had mentioned in service on Sunday at my post congregation (Memorial Chapel) that I’d be conducting the service in the prison. A couple of my church members to include the Garrison Commander asked if they could join us in worship.

That morning everything worked, the schedule of calls was on time and the church was fairly full. Looking out over my congregation, it was a picture of the Church. The powerful and powerless, the formal worshippers next to the informal, the Catholics side by side with the Protestants, the Mormons next to the Baptists, the handsome next to the homely, the brown (prison uniform) next to the green (Army uniform), the inmate and the Garrison commander, the public sinners who were tried and condemned for their crimes and the private sinners who alone knew of their brokenness – I remember sitting in the pastor’s chair a little speechless by what was before me.

I knew it was to be my last Ash Wed service in the prison and very soon I would be leaving the prison and my inmates. My voice quivered when I started but soon confidence took over and the service went on. As inmates filed up to receive their ashes, the officers and Soldiers mingled with the prisoners, all one, all equal, all aware of their humanity and frailty.

Finally it was time for me to receive my ashes. I motioned to one of my inmates and, surprised, he came forward.
“Will you put the ashes on me?” He nodded.
I said the words, “From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel.” His hands trembled a bit as the prisoner applied the ashes to the chaplain’s forehead.

We are all one. We are all sinners in need of a savior. We all come from dust and no matter what power or prestige is given to us on earth, to dust we shall return. Repent. And believe the Gospel.

Sacred dust. Sacred Ash. Sacred Redemption.

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