Medicine For People!

December 2007

What I Learned in Jail

My mother-in-law, Shirley Grade, sang in the choir. You talk about a Midwestern, motherly, knitting, stove-always-on, neighbor's-kids-welcome-at-any-time person, she was it. She never complained though she would, if severely provoked, "cluck." She'd express concern about something, and one of her children would say "you're clucking again, mother."

Shirley was a salt-of-the-earth Catholic. She gave birth to eleven children. She attended mass every Sunday and every holy day. You'd never guess how tough she could be.

I married Shirley's daughter. When we had our first son, we moved to Milwaukee to be close to her parents. I am not a conventionally religious man, though I'm thankful for my Methodist upbringing and the knowledge of the Bible they gave me. In college, my religion classes stimulated questions I couldn't answer and ignited my curiosity about the deeper nature of this world, but that hadn't led me to a particular faith. For me, right action brought fulfillment.

That was the setting when, as a new father, I felt the need to strengthen our family by adopting my wife's Catholicism and decided to convert.

In my pre-confirmation catechism, Father Dolan taught me that the Catholic Church operates under strict doctrinal rules. The Catholic Church does not just dole out sacraments willy-nilly. For the sacrament of communion, you need to be a Catholic in good standing. If you have sinned, you must go to confession and perform some penance before you can take communion. For the sacrament of marriage, you cannot have been divorced. And so on.

Thus I embarked on my life as a Catholic. Years passed. One day, Shirley told me that a new choirmaster had announced his intention to bring the choir to a higher level of excellence. But first, a few people would have to go and Shirley was one of them. True to form, she made no complaint to anyone. She walked out of the choir room, out of the church, wiped her feet outside the door, and never went back again.

Now the problem was: where she would attend mass? The Milwaukee area is pretty well paved with Catholic churches. They stand cheek-and-jowl with Lutheran Churches all across the neighborhoods. Closest to Shirley Grade, however, was the Milwaukee County Jail, where every Sunday a group of nuns sponsored mass for the juvenile offenders. Shirley decided that's where she would go.

Meanwhile, I had been sitting through weeks of onerous homilies that seemed to blend into one long harangue against the "sins" of the congregants. So I was eager to go to the jail with Shirley and check that scene out. I followed her into a courtyard of a grim, four-story brick building. She knocked, and a guard opened the door, checked our IDs, and recorded our names. I eyed the night stick and holstered gun swinging from his belt as we followed him through one locked door and then a second. We ended up in an austere meeting room; the mirrors on the wall, I suspected, were one-way windows.

Shirley seemed completely at home. She chatted with the four nuns there, catching up on news. The priest concentrated on setting up his kit.

Then the boys, five or six of them, entered the room. What had these toughs done, I wondered, that they had to be locked up? In the presence of the nuns, they seemed shy and subdued, almost vulnerable. The nuns greeted them warmly and hovered around solicitously, murmuring to the boys. I overheard one nun talking to the newcomers. "Now, we are having mass this morning, in which we celebrate God's gift of salvation to mankind. As part of this, the priest will consecrate bread, which we call the Host. Now, we believe that in that process, this wafer becomes the body of Jesus Christ. And if, when we come to that part of the ceremony, you feel and believe the same, you are welcome to partake with us."

I was astonished. What about the strict rules controlling this sacrament? Could these young boys, un-catechized, un-confessed, partake? I knew what self-discipline and self-abnegation the nuns lived under. Yet sure enough, when the priest came to that part of the mass, he offered the host to those boys. They knelt. Like baby birds they opened their mouths, closed their eyes, and let the host dissolve on their tongues. I could tell they were comforted and at peace in that moment. I was touched in a way that rarely happened in church. Throw out all the doctrine, all the rules, all niggling arguments between different denominations, strip it all away, and there it was, the treasure of love underneath it all, brought to me courtesy of a group of nuns whose names I'll never recall.

I suppose in every epoch there have been reasons to feel cynical about religion. Being fussy about who gets the holy sacraments is the least of it. In the name of Jehovah, God, and Allah we kill each other. At Wounded Knee, at Auschwitz, at Fallujah, horrible things have been done in the name of religion.

Over the ages, this blustery time of year has held spiritual meaning for people — the return of the sun, the birth of the savior, the miracle of oil that lit the temple for eight days. You know people are going to spend a ton of money on presents, eat too much food, and get depressed because things are supposed to be wonderful at Christmas and sometimes they aren't. We live in an imperfect world. But here's something to celebrate. Religions are not monolithic. Just as some people do terrible wrong in the name of religion, others do amazing good.

That's what I learned in jail.

We at the clinic wish you a joyful holiday.


story: What I Learned in Jail, September 1982

Medicine for People! is published by Douwe Rienstra, MD at Port Townsend, Washington.