I received word that a member of the church was being held at the maximum security federal penitentiary in Philadelphia. This brother had received special permission from Salt Lake City to receive the sacrament, an ordinance not normally administered to people while imprisoned. This facility was within my congregation’s boundaries so the regional authorities asked me to make arrangements to minister to him. I submitted my ecclesiastical credentials to the prison, underwent a federal background check, and had my name submitted by the prisoner as a formal request for me to be listed as his minister of record. This process took more than a month.
When arriving at the facility for the first time, stopping by on a Sunday after church, I was asked to fill out additional paperwork. I turned over all my personal belongings, only being allowed to retain scriptures and any money on my person. I had none. My hand was stamped, my photo was taken, and a warden escorted me first to a waiting lobby, then into a large visiting room. I was there on the assigned women’s visiting day so all the inmates in the room were female, sitting in rows of plastic chairs on one side, with families in matching chairs facing them, and a series of low plastic end tables in between. I waited off to one side till another warden led in a smallish white man with glasses and graying hair. We shook hands, hugged, then were shown to a side room with two chairs and a desk, usually reserved for visits with lawyers. The chaplain, who had previously told us he would provide communion wafer and cup for the ordinance, was unreachable being engaged in worship services of his own, so we were denied the proper equipment to have the sacrament. We talked instead.
He explained to me the details of his white collar crime. He told me he had struck a deal that he did not know was illegal. Once he did know he backed out and returned all the funds previously exchanged.This didn’t stop the indictment. He was convicted by a judge this brother described as antagonistic, and has been locked away for a year. His case was pending appeal. We talked for quite a while and parted ways, intending to attempt the sacrament again the next week.
That next week I was denied access to the prison. I was told by the guards that I was only listed as a social visitor and could only visit on one pre-scheduled day per week, and this was not the day. Being rebuffed I again contacted the chaplain who apologized and said there was a misunderstanding and to try again. I tried again and was this time rebuffed saying I could only visit before 1:30 on any given day. Our church services ended at noon so I could not get to the prison before the prescribed time. It was 12:45. I haunted the waiting room till the chaplain was summoned. He informed me there was another misunderstanding and that I could in fact visit any day, but that it did need to be before 1:30. He reiterated that if contacted in advance he would provide supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. I thanked him and we parted ways.
The next day, Monday, I received an email from the imprisoned brother that his mother had passed away that morning and he was not in good spirits. He repeated his request to receive the sacrament. I emailed the chaplain that I would be at the prison by 9am the next morning and rearranged my schedule to be there.
Upon my arrival the next morning I was denied access. I argued with the warden who after several phone calls began the process to allow me access. I was brought back into the large waiting room with all the chairs while they processed the brother for visitation.
Every time an inmate receives a visitor they are strip searched both before and after the visit. On his arrival we found ourselves alone together in the large visitation room, being denied the private side rooms this time, and again were denied by the authorities any access to supplies to be able to administer the sacrament. By now it has been many months since this process had been initiated and this brother had yet to receive the bread and water.
We went to a far corner, I invited him to sit, then I went over to the vending machines and purchased a bottle of water and a “lunchable” package of crackers, cheese, and cold cuts. I also collected two white napkins and a white paper plate. We sat facing each other, me in my white shirt and tie, him in his prison jump suit, and I prepared this sad meal to be the sacrament.
He sat and watched as I filled the bottle’s cap with water, set it on one plate and covered it with a napkin. I then placed one cracker on the other plate and also covered it with a napkin. I invited him to say an opening prayer, which he did.
Afterwards I uncovered the cracker, broke it, knelt down and with a military issue of the Gospel Principals book I recited the blessing on the bread. I handed him the plate and as he took and ate the cracker he began to cry. No sobbing and sniffling, just a straight, sad, silent face. His tears continued on through the water and the conclusion of our small and humble service.
I cleaned away our setting and sat down. He could not speak at first. Here in this place filled with those who society has deemed dangerous and punishable, I felt the spirit.
As we parted this brother thanked me again and again. I accepted his thanks filled with the warmth that comes with service and a holy ordinance.