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Holy Week Beginnings…

Yesterday, I hurried off to mass to secure 8 consecrated hosts, so that I could bring them with me to the prayer service I was leading at the correctional facility that afternoon. Success! It was Palm Sunday, and I made sure to make a couple of palm crosses too, so I could place them on the makeshift altar that I set up for every visit. Got there right on time, and just as I was signing in, the officer stopped me and said, “We’re actually on facility lockdown right now…all day.” Major bummer.

Walked right back to my car, and sure enough, it started raining. Yeah, like, “gray cloud, sad day” raining. Since I had all of that Jesus with me, I decided to have a mini prayer service in my car, in the jail parking lot – I figured, this was meant for them, so I’d might as well maintain the prayers by proximity (if that’s possible?). Such a bummer. Feeling uninspired, I opened the Bible to a random page, and it opened to Psalm 27. It read:

“The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?” – Psalm 27:1

I consumed the hosts, and was grateful for an uplifting and reassuring mantra to guide me through the rest of the day. I figured, well, I’m visiting again, so hopefully tomorrow will be a better day and I’ll get to share Passion Sunday with the women. Just a day late!

Flash forward to this evening. As I drove over to the facility and walked on in, I kept thinking to myself: “I hope it’s a go…I hope it’s a go…” Welp, sure enough, the officer stopped me just as I was slipping my ID into the tray, and she said it would be another 30 minutes. Could I wait? I thought to myself for 15 seconds…and did an external processing situation with the officer as to whether or not I should wait it out (she was super nice and kind in listening to me…laughed a bunch too!)…and I decided to stay. I went to my car, decided to bust out the Bible again and get some inspiration for the evening. Read through Psalm 27 again…

“The Lord is the stronghold of my life – of whom shall I be afraid?” – Psalm 27:1

I walked back in (def did not wait the entire 30 minutes), got the OK, gathered my materials, and I was in the unit. I set up my altar off to the side, and after 25 minutes, some of the women were released for their free time…no. one. came. I greeted a few of them, but no one came. “Oh well,” I thought to myself. “I’m here in case any one wants to join – no problem.” The officer notified the unit, “The chaplain is here – Catholic.” Still, no one. I said to myself, OK, if no one comes, I’m leaving in 10 minutes. After 5 minutes, one woman came, then four others.

We went through the “positive” experiences from the past week, and they went something like this: “Grateful to no longer be homeless,” “My son finally got affordable housing and we don’t have to be on the streets anymore,” “I repented.” There is so much pain here in this place. I wish I could describe it better, but I truly believe there is lots of space for gratitude too.

In terms of the readings, the Gospel was long this week. It made me nervous because I was like, uh oh…they’re gonna start zoning out! But yet they were so engaged in following the story of Jesus that led to his crucifixion. It was truly inspiring to have them contribute their thoughts and weave in their personal experiences, as they relate to the Stations.

After 40 minutes, it was already late and I had some one-on-ones, so I was packing up ready to go. But before that, I had the chance to pray with a couple of women at their cells. “OK, here we go…,” I thought to myself. Walking through the center of the unit was quite the experience in itself.

I prayed with one of the women at her door and our hands touched the glass between us. We prayed for her intentions and she was gracious. Another woman was going to be released shortly, and so we took time to pray with one another at her door. This will hopefully be the last time I see her here. With emotions running high, it was a blessed time and we got to chat a little bit about the transition that is to come for her and her family. Indeed, what a Holy Week this has started out to be.

Let me tell you…prayer is powerful. A unit which was usually muddled with shouting, loud noises, and unrest was so quiet in that span of prayer time spent at their doors. Wow.  This experience was by far one of the most powerful experiences I have ever had, and it is truly a gift to be able to enter into these spaces and see Jesus within these walls.

“I believe I shall see the Lord’s goodness in the land of the living” – Psalm 27:13




Phil 4:13

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

I walked into the room with some greetings from the women, and I watched closely as they prepared one of their creative meals…sweet and sour noodles. I asked what they used to make it: ramen noodles, kool-aid and some other sauce. Whip it all together into a zip loc bag, place it on top of the water thermos, and ta-da – your meal for the evening, if you wanted a snack.

A new year with new beginnings and I am looking forward to bringing Eucharist with me in these upcoming visits. I figured I should step up my game when I visit the units, so this is what I came up with: my comfort cross, an icon of Mary, baby Jesus, and the three kings bringing gifts to Jesus, and a little statue of Mother Cabrini. The comfort cross was given to me by my spiritual director in New York, when I went through the 19th Annotation and I figured it would be a great thing for the women to hold when we would go around and do prayer intentions.

The icon was given to me by one of my dearest classmates Tom who is a missionary with his family in Senegal. He is one of the most fascinating people I have ever met with so much wisdom and experience from his mission life. He is a pastor with the Assemblies of God and he builds churches and tends to other needs in the community. Anyway, he got this in the Holy Land and sent it to me recently. He got it at the 6th station of the Via Dolorosa, where now stands the Church of the Holy Face & St. Veronica, which is run by the Little Sisters of Jesus. And these Sisters made the mural. So precious!  I almost fell over when it came in the mail for me…I immediately knew that I would want this beautiful icon with me at my mini-altar set-up when I meet with the women. Very colorful, hopeful, and causes us to question, “What can we offer baby Jesus?”

Lastly, Mother Cabrini. Obviously. One of my biggest inspirations – she had to come with me for the ride.

Sure enough, I was sharing with the group Mother Cabrini’s mantra, “I can do all things through Christ who strengths me.” Before I even finished, one of the ladies finished my sentence and used her ten fingers to say the scripture. One word per finger. It rolled right off her tongue. It was awesome!

I am hopeful for the year ahead for my ministry with restorative justice and I look forward to the exciting things ahead. Here we go!

Determining the Purpose

God gives us the strength to change those things that can and must be changed. And God helps us to confront those things that happen unfairly, for no good reason. God helps us deal with what is beyond our control, what can’t be changed. I used to think that we are where we are for a preordained reason. But I no longer believe that is true. We are where we are, and it is up to us whether there is a purpose in it or not. Places, circumstances and encounter aren’t inherently meaningful; we make them meaningful, we give them purpose.

– Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, God’s Echo


Bread for Others

This past week for our Advocacy, Public Policy & Human Rights class, we had to read two books: Living Justice by Thomas Massaro, SJ and Just Politics by Ronald J. Sider.  Great books – very informative, inspiring, and made me again ask the question, “Wow. What IF we treated one another with respect that reflects the Truth that everyone was made in the image and likeness of God?” One question we had to answer in our paper was: “How do the themes (as discussed by Massaro and Sider) build upon each other to form a holistic approach to the suffering and brokenness of the world?”

I don’t think I ever looked at Catholic Social Teaching (CST) as closely as I did, as I prepared for this assignment. I studied CST in college, but this time around, with the experiences that I have had, I found myself reading Massaro’s text with much more conviction and with a greater desire to practice and live CST more closely. What a challenge! How difficult that is! Now, if I could only meet him before he leaves Santa Clara…

I was working on my paper, and the song, “Here At This Table” randomly popped int my head, and I started singing it to myself:

You who labor for justice, you who labor for peace,
You who steady the plow in the field of the Lord…

Massaro writes, ” We all have something to contribute to the common good, and all may benefit from the gifts that we bring to the common table of human community and solidarity.” That quotation remained me with as I was writing my paper.

Mass happened that evening and the Gospel spoke about Bartimaeus. Jesus asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” That led me to truly ask myself, “What do I want Jesus to do for me?” Sitting in Church, suddenly, I found myself reflecting on the Eucharist.

As communion started to be distributed, ironically enough, “Here At This Table” was the song the choir decided to sing. What?! God – get out of my mind (that was my immediately thought!) And then, I had an interesting experience. An overwhelming feeling of sadness came over me, as I thought to myself, “Who is not gathered around this table? Who is not present receiving communion? Who are left out of the community – intentionally or unintentionally? How can I be more welcoming to the stranger?” I saw something like this:

last_supper_with_street_children20lowresTaken From: “Last Supper with the Street Children

In my church pew, instead, I thought of all the people who are normally sitting on the streets asking for food and money…but this time, underneath the table of the Eucharist. There are thousands in the San Jose area alone who are shunned by the community – many who do not feel welcome. What good is it to receive the Body of Christ if I choose to not use this to strengthen me, inspire me, and move in me to serve others? Blessed, broken, and shared.

What a challenge it is, every time we receive the Body of Christ.

Come and be filled here at this table.
Food for all who hunger and drink for all who thirst.
Drink of his love, wine of salvation.
You shall live forever in Jesus Christ the Lord.

Receiving this bread is not meant for me alone. How beautiful it would be if we allow our experiences to transform us and engage with others around us. Catholic Social Teaching in action is difficult, and at times I find myself picking and choosing – out of convenience or my own selfishness. But I acknowledge this, and every day is another chance to be better and better learn how I can be bread for others.

Image:  “The Communion Table Top” | CC BY 2.0

What Happens on Monday Nights…

It had been a few weeks since I had a chance to visit the women at the Correctional Facility because they had been on lockdown every time I would come. When that happens, I sit in the waiting room with other family members awaiting their visits, and literally stare at the clock until enough minutes pass by so that I can get up and ask the officer if the lockdown had been lifted. You don’t want to annoy them, you know.

Past few visits, the lockdown was in effect for the whole night so I would be sent home after an hour. When that happens, I feel terrible for many reasons….but mostly because the women who I usually spend time with on Monday nights don’t get the memo that no visitors are being allowed inside, and they end up thinking, “Oh, they decided not to come tonight.” Which is totally not the case!

Tonight, I headed over to the jail and said multiple prayers to God asking that a lockdown would not be taking place. And it wasn’t. It was the complete opposite! I remember before I went through the doors thinking to myself, “Mother Cabrini, Jesus, you are with me. This is what you would do, right? Let’s do this!”

Tonight was totally seamless, super nice officers, and my usual 8-person Bible study group tonight was a whoppin’ 13! That’s a big deal…especially when you’re in a super small room with an awkwardly large table on the side too filling up half of it. The circle was complete and if we added any more people, it would have been standing room only. As soon as the women started coming in, I couldn’t help but start smiling! I was immediately filled with joy to see them again and catch up with them. One of the other girls couldn’t join us but she asked me where I had been cause it had been such a long time! Ah, but she understood. Phew!

The Holy Spirit showed up tonight. And Joy and Hope too. I started off by having them do an icebreaker (the teacher in me) with their name, and the rose and thorn from the past week. They seemed to enjoy it. Gotta take advantage of opportunities to build community, you know! It was awesome. We started off with lots of laughing, some serious stories, and then thanksgiving for the gift of being able to be in that space with one another. They all had their Bibles with them, but I told them I had a different plan and I wanted to go over the address that Pope Francis gave to the Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania. They were so excited to read it because they only read bits and pieces of his U.S. visit in magazines. We talked a little about the Pope, I gave some background on who he was, and then we were about to get started. The women were in good spirits and it was a lively bunch. That always makes it easy!

Before I passed out the texts though, one of the women stopped me and said, “Crystal, sorry to interrupt, but can you share with us why you’re here? Like, do you choose to be here?” One of the other girls next to her gave her a push and was like, “Do you see her smiling so big? She totally wants to be here!” And the other girl said, “But why? I don’t get it.” I immediately thought to myself, “Dang. That’s a good question – how do I articulate this?” I then shared with them my thoughts and they were grateful. There were a lot of “awwws” and more smiles. So that was a good thing.

We went through the text from Pope Francis then went around each reading a paragraph. I had never seen the women so engaged in a text before. It was absolutely quiet when one woman would be reading. As soon as we finished, I heard deep breaths and lots of, “Wow”s and “That was so good” and “Can I keep this paper?” We discussed the text and they were comforted to know that they were not forgotten. They are truly a beautiful group of women – some my age, others younger than me, and others who are older moms with multiple children.

I had marked up my paper with highlighter and blue pen marks with questions and scriptures and tried to touch on as much of it as possible, but one part really stood out to me:

Jesus comes to meet us, so that he can restore our dignity as children of God. He wants to help us to set out again, to resume our journey, to recover our hope, to restore our faith and trust. He wants us to keep walking along the paths of life, to realize that we have a mission, and that confinement is not the same thing as exclusion. – Pope Francis (Full Text here)

We spent some time discussing these last few sentences and I kept going back to the same thing: inherent dignity and mission. Yes, perhaps crimes were committed, wrongdoings had taken place, but dignity from God…that is there to stay. Amen? Amen. Mission sure may look different inside the walls than from the outside, but it’s in the little things that can make a difference. And mission never ends – no matter where we are. We shared examples of what that could look like within their cells. How could they serve one another in the midst of their circumstances? We talked about these things.

Repeating these phrases to the women tonight confirmed and affirmed my belief in God’s desires for each one of us. Whether or not the women recognize God’s presence in their lives, I felt the Spirit affirm and celebrate their presence in that room. For some, it was their first time being there tonight, and one of the women shared how grateful she was that she decided to come. In that moment, I was so certain that God loved each and every one of them – and that message from Pope Francis was meant for them too. Each one of them.

I closed us in prayer and some were wiping their eyes when we ended. In a way, it was an out of body experience for me, in that I felt the Spirit’s presence in the room, and it was filled with hope and such a joy to be with them. The conviction that I felt of their dignity and their call to love and service in the world was/is indescribable. It was a very powerful night. They prayed for one another, and to me, they reflected what a supportive community could look like.

I feel incredibly grateful for this ministry and for the opportunity to spend time with others in this capacity. There is so much work to be done and I am so grateful to be a part of it in the smallest of ways.