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From Behind the Desk to Behind Bars

From Behind the Desk to Behind Bars

By Paul Politis

OCPM Director of Operations Paul Politis describes his first experience visiting a jail.

It was a cold and rainy Thursday morning when I met Father Nicholas Solak at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. I had traveled to the seminary to make my first visit to a jail. Fr Nicholas introduced me to the group that I would be accompanying: seminarians, priests and Master of Divinity students. We packed up into a few cars and headed off. On the way to the jail, Father Nick discussed how he became involved with prison ministry and the great need for it across the country. He explained to me what to expect and told me not to be nervous. I was nervous, but I kept a reserved manner. I didn’t know what else to do. Would it be like television makes it out to be, or would it be worse? Despite my fears, I knew that this visit was a necessary one, and that it would help me understand more deeply the important ministry of OCPM.

Father Nick pulled into the jail parking lot and advised me to leave everything in the car except for my driver’s license. We stepped out of Father’s vehicle and proceeded to the first security checkpoint, a guard booth surrounded by high chain-linked fences and razor wire. We checked in and walked toward the jail, which was similar to walking through a college campus—green lawn, well manicured, and the building looked somewhat like dormitories that you would find at large universities. We arrived at the main building and entered to go through the next security clearance. I approached the main desk with three corrections officers behind it. They asked for my name and identification. They cleared my paperwork, took a photo, and provided me a visitor’s pass. The last part of the security clearance was having everyone proceed through a metal detector. Once my group was cleared, we proceeded to the jail’s chapel.

The walk to the jail’s chapel was an eye opening experience. To enter the jail you must enter a containment area and wait for a large steel sliding door to open; once it opens you enter the main vestibule of the jail. In this area, you’ll find the mailroom and other administrative offices. Once we entered this area, Father Nick told us to make a left and walk to another set of steel doors. As I turned, reality hit me. Two burly men were sitting behind the door we need to pass through, wearing orange jump suits. I was getting anxious and didn’t know how they would react to our group’s presence, but once we passed them, I soon got my answer. The two men saw Father Nick and our group and said, “Good afternoon Father! Good to see you all! God Bless!” It was the most unexpected yet wonderful greeting I had received in my life. At this point, our group continued down the hallway and passed other inmates. At first glance these men seemed intimidating, but the moment eye contact was made, they were very welcoming. We passed another security checkpoint and were directed towards the chapel.

The chapel was a large recreational room with chairs, a podium, a piano, and wood carvings of the Cross, Star of David, and the crescent moon and star. The group arranged the chairs in a large circle and heard the announcement over the PA system that Bible Study was beginning and being held in the chapel. Within a few minutes about 25 men came, some with Bibles in hand, ready to start this week’s session. Father Nick started off with a prayer and then one of the students proceeded to discuss the day’s lesson on Forgiveness and Forgetting. After reading a parable and reviewing some discussion questions, we divided into smaller discussion groups. Each group was composed of three people from the seminary and ten inmates.

When I joined my group, we went around the circle and introduced ourselves. One inmate pulled up his sleeve to show off his tattoo which spelled out Bam. The seminarians didn’t understand what it meant, but I understood that Bam was his nickname on the street. I asked the man what his real name was and he hesitated, but then said to the group, “My name is Dimitri.” He put his head down, but I immediately said that it was a really cool name because one of the best known saints in the Church shares the same name. The man looked up in awe and disbelief. He was amazed that he had a connection to a saint! I sensed that everyone in the group wanted to speak and discuss what was on their minds. The group became further interested in our discussion and all felt more comfortable in joining in. When our time was finally up, our visiting group had to make its way back to St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

The men we met really enjoy these Bible Study sessions and the chance to interact with the clergy and seminarians. The visits give them something to look forward to every week and provide a connection to the outside world, as well as a connection to a community that truly believes in forgiveness and repentance. They had so many questions and wanted to learn more about the Orthodox Christian Faith. I wish that we had had more time for our visit and that we had more clergy to help answer their questions.

Through my visit, I saw firsthand that people in prison, like all of us, have spiritual needs that they long to have filled. That’s why OCPM is so vital. I am planning more visits to jails and prisons, and I hope clergy and laity will join me.

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