OCPM recently held a staff retreat in Pennsylvania. We had the privilege of visiting with seminarians, along with the Dean at St. Tikhon’s Seminary and the Abbott at St. Tikhon’s Monastery. We also visited SCI Waymart, a nearby prison, escorted by Fr. John Kowalczyk and Fr. Stephen Powley, Co-Directors of Training and Spiritual Care at OCPM.
I was no stranger to prison visits having volunteered in prison ministry for the past 12 years. I haven’t visited a jail or prison since pre-COVID, however. Fr. John, who has served in this prison for decades, explained to us that SCI Waymart was a little different. This prison houses a unit for inmates needing psychiatric care and treatment and are often suicidal or homicidal. SCI Waymart serves as the focal point for the treatment of all psychiatric inmates within the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections. Fr John added that the majority of inmates came from very dark upbringings beginning in early childhood.
No matter how many times I have visited a prison there is always some level of apprehension – after all, it’s a prison! This time was no different. The slamming of steel doors and bars behind us as we ventured deeper inside the facility left little doubt that we were outside of our comfort zone. The first unit we visited held one-man cells, behind a solid steel door, and a plexiglass window. As we passed by I saw some men sleeping, some pacing, and some staring blankly through the glass.
Fr. John approached several cells calling the men by name. As they came to the glass it was clear that they knew him well. Fr. John spoke to them in a way that brought peace to an otherwise dark and uncertain place. I then witnessed some of the men press their heads against the glass as Fr. John placed his hand just on the other side, praying with them. A very moving thing to witness in a place one would never expect.
We then visited the day room. A room where 15 or so men sat at tables, watched television. A few men stood facing the wall, alone and silent. As we entered the room the last thing I would ever expect to happen, happened. More than half of the men stood and began applauding shouting ”Fr. John!” Once again, Fr. John and Fr. Stephen moved about and spoke to the men with kindness and grace, bringing a sense of peace to the room. Prayers were offered, and one man even asked for a blessing! Another man recited a poem he had written, and still another shared how he was reading through the Bible.
I soon began to notice my apprehension was still at play in some ways. As I looked into some of their faces I saw pain, fear, and even a look of hopelessness. In my heart I was gently reminded that I needed to change lenses so that I could see Christ in these men. To know and see them as persons made in the image and likeness of God. Once I see them as God sees them, they will come to see themselves as God sees them, as His precious and beloved sons, and that is what will bring healing to their lives.
Later that afternoon, many of the men joined us for a Vespers service, my first service outside of a parish and my first with inmates. It was held in the auditorium and led by Fr. John. Icons of Christ and the Theotokos were on a table near the front and we were blessed by the chants of the St. Tikhon’s Seminary Choir. Despite the venue and the surroundings, I knew without any doubt that God was in that place.
What a blessing it was to have a “front row seat” and to witness God’s grace that day and the work of OCPM. I am humbled to be part of this ministry and work alongside these dedicated servants. On the plane ride home I reflected on my time inside the prison and searched for a takeaway from the experience. The words that came to mind were words I’ve heard before but now have deeper meaning – “We need them more than they need us.”
Mark Santana is the Church Programs Manager for Orthodox Christian Prison Ministry and attends St. Ignatius Antiochian Orthodox Church in Franklin, TN.