“My Lord, and My God”: The Prison Ministry Journal of Toby John, Part 2

Below is Part Two in a new four-part series of journal entries from OCPM’s Prison Relationship Manager during his internship with OCPM and St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (STOTS). If you haven’t already, make sure to read Part One of Toby John’s Prison Journal.

Friday, February 10

On this day, we began to hold Vespers once a week, usually on Fridays. Prior to Vespers, Father John, Monk Michael, and I walked through the unit and spoke with various individuals. I had an interesting conversation with someone about the Jesus Prayer. He told me that he had been hallucinating and hearing voices, but he continued talking to me about the Jesus Prayer. He mentioned that he read about it in a book and have been saying it since he read about it. Curious to see if we were talking about the same thing, I asked for him to say the prayer and immediately he goes, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This conversation would sometimes take a turn depending on what he was hearing at the moment. He would occasionally pause and tell me what he was currently hearing. Throughout this, I encouraged him to keep using the Jesus Prayer as a tool to stay calm and resist following whatever the voices told him to do. Interestingly, he did not show to have any remorse for the crime he committed. He said that he knows that he did something bad and left it at that. There was no remorse in his voice or actions. Father John explained that most of the times, this is because the individual is not fully mentally there which explains the hallucinations and auditory voices. 

Afterwards, we returned to the auditorium and conducted Vespers with around 7-10 individuals. Some of them were familiar with Orthodoxy, while others were not. For many, it was their first time attending an Orthodox service, and they came because of their relationship with Father John. The seed was planted, and it was starting to grow. Following the solemn Vespers service, I delivered a brief homily to the individuals. My homily was based on John 20:24-31, focusing on the peace of God that was granted to the Apostles. I specifically highlighted how Christ approached Thomas directly, knowing that Thomas needed to touch His wounds to believe. I emphasized that just as Christ comes to Thomas, aware of his specific needs, Christ also comes to each of us as individuals, knowing our exact needs. When we perceive and feel the presence of Christ, an overwhelming sense of peace is bestowed upon us. It is during those moments that we can joyfully proclaim, “My Lord and My God.” To conclude our time together, we held a general Q&A session.

Wednesday, February 15

Today, we started our day as we typically do. During our time at the first unit there were several individuals who didn’t engage in conversation with us. Some of these individuals were in an active state of psychosis. I distinctly remember one individual continuously pacing back and forth in his cell, even though we were right in front of him. On the other hand, there were other individuals who recognized Father John and some of us from our previous visits.

I couldn’t stop thinking about how Father John teaches us the importance of presence and voice recognition. Even though we only encountered some of these individuals during their episodes of active psychosis, just a week later, they seemed to have some understanding of who we were. Father John would introduce us as his “God Squad.” We went from cell to cell, offering prayers for the individuals inside. Some individuals had specific prayer requests, such as being closer to home or reconnecting with their families. In those instances, we made a special effort to pray for those particular requests. I noticed that a rapport was starting to develop with these individuals. I hope that we continue to see these individuals in the coming weeks to see how these relationships continue to unfold. 

In the MHU, there are four steps that represent different levels of activity and engagement. For example, individuals who entered the MHU started at level 1, which indicates an active state of psychosis or heavy medication use. As individuals took showers, ate their meals, and followed their medication regimen, they would progress to the next level. The levels range from 1 to 4, and after the fourth step, they would move out of the MHU. Many of these individuals have committed terrible crimes but have no recollection of them.

Afterwards we all returned to the auditorium to conduct Vespers service with the seminarians. We decided to move the Vespers service to today due to the OCPM board meeting that is going to happen on Friday which prevents Father John and I from coming to the prison. Hearing the beautiful singing of the seminarians took me back to my own seminary days. I can only imagine how these individuals felt after leaving the beautiful Vespers service. 

Following that, we had approximately 15 minutes to speak individually with individuals. The person I spoke with happened to be Orthodox. He mentioned that he never expected to be in a prison where Vespers services were held, let alone have a weekly visit from an Orthodox Priest. He continued to speak about how much Father John has done to help him during his time here. He expressed his gratitude over and over again. 

Wednesday, February 22

Sometimes visiting the unit can be challenging because the individuals are not fully mentally present, but we do have engaging conversations with some of them. For the individuals that are in an active state of psychosis, all we do is introduce ourselves and offer a prayer. What we see and witness is God’s merciful hand surpassing all sorts of illnesses to heal these individuals.  

Compared to some of the individuals, one really caught my attention. This individual appeared to be very well organized. His books and commissary items were neatly stacked. As we walked by his cell, he was in bed, legs crossed, reading a book. When we spoke with him, he was very polite. It made me wonder if he truly suffered from mental instability because he was not like the others. Father John had to remind me that those in this unit are sent here by the state for treatment. When we spoke with him, he didn’t want to engage in a conversation but was very polite. We asked if we could say a prayer for him, but he declined. This was a different interaction than what we normally experience on this floor. I’m curious to see if he will still be there when we visit next week. 

After this we entered the day room to interact with different individuals who were interested in speaking with us. I spent most of my time conversing with one particular individual. There seemed to be a connection right from the start. I noticed him looking at me while I was speaking with someone else and so after I finished my first conversation, I stood up and he walked towards me. For the sake of confidentiality, we will call him Bob. He opened up about realizing the mistakes he made and the circumstances that led him to be there, particularly his drug usage. He expressed his desire to turn his life around for the sake of being a good father to his kids. Sadly, he has not been able to see his daughter since she was born because he was arrested shortly after her birth. 

I had the opportunity to discuss Orthodoxy with him and invited him to attend our weekly Vespers service. We had a wonderful conversation, and he seemed genuinely grateful for our interaction. I encouraged him to maintain a low profile, complete all the required programs, and continue working towards his release in May. I introduced him to the Jesus Prayer and encouraged him to use it and read the Scriptures during challenging times. He continued to share the difficulties he faces with his ex-wife, who has been preventing him from speaking with his kids. Despite the challenges, he expressed understanding the reason why this was and his genuine motivation to get out and transform his life for the better.


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