Encounter with Compassion
Twenty-four hours after the verdict in the death of Colten Boushie was reached I entered the chapel at the federal prison and glanced around at the non-white faces. More than three-quarters of those who had come that evening were Aboriginal men.
My social media pages were filled with opinions by others about the verdict but I had remained strangely silent. My anguish cannot be expressed. I have been doing prison ministry with my parish for years. I joke with the guys some nights that I am a lifer—I have been there longer than some of them.
Due to a broken ankle, I had been homebound for two months. I had missed chapel and as weary as I still felt, I dragged myself out the door. A couple of the guys I speak with during coffee after mass watched me as I shuffled in with my walker. I nodded in their direction, aware of their stares and curiosity.
Once mass had been celebrated, I made my way over to them. I asked if they were staying until change over and if I could join them until then. They nodded. Both enjoy the quietness of the chapel where they can relax before heading off to another activity.
One of the reasons I love prison ministry is that the guys keep it real. For all those people who say I look great (and there is an element of truth in that), they saw more than most others. What is going on? the older of the two asked me. He was persistent as I spoke about my ankle and concussion. clearly not buying that was the whole story.
I finally looked him in the eyes and told him I was sick. He raised his eyebrows, requiring more information. Cancer. One word. He looked at his buddy and told me that they had thought something was wrong–that I did not look well and had lost weight.
His friend mentioned that he had lost his mother to liver cancer a couple of years ago–she was younger than me. He shared with me how he was with her as she took her last breath, helping her to pass to the other side. At the change over time, they made no move to get up. I heard the chaplain call it for the last time and warned them they had better go. Both said the same thing: they would sit with me. I was surprised but grateful.
The younger one got up to grab more coffee and, in that time, the older one, a lifer, thanked me for coming for all these years and being a blessing to the inmates. He spoke for some time until tears welled up in my eyes but he kept going. I found words to thank him, deeply moved by his compassion and care. He had been equally as gentle last spring when I told him that my father had died.
We spoke of suffering, the afterlife, and death. We laughed about some of the concepts. One asked me to come back to the gates once I was in and make a hole for him to shimmy through when his time came. I chuckled and said I would meet him at the gates to vouch for him or throw a key over for him. The other asked that I would pray for him from the other side. I offered to start now. They both shared their pain with me from their own lives. By the end of it I knew a great blessing had happened for each of us. To share in one’s suffering is sacred.
Society tends to avoid the topics of sickness and death but these men met it fearlessly and head on with tenderness. We are not supposed to bring our “stuff” into the chapel but I was honoured by the exchange we shared.
On the way home, my mind turned back to Colten and his family. We sometimes see through the lens of fear and misunderstanding. These two inmates had brought healing to me. If only we looked beyond our prejudices, we might be able to break down barriers. Sharing heart to heart is one way to see the life of the other through compassion and understanding. May we find our way in these difficult times and seek the goodness that each person has to offer.