“God was Always With Me”: The Prison Ministry Journal of Toby John, Part 4

Below is the last installment of our 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 and Part Two and Part Three of Toby John’s Prison Ministry Journal.

March 22

This day was significantly different from most days. In nearly everything I do; I try to learn from different people in the same position so I can see what works for them and what doesn’t. By doing this, I try to have more than one tool in my toolbelt. Today I wanted to go with another chaplain to see how he approaches these individuals on the units. What stood out to me was the significant amount of administrative work he engaged in. Our plan to meet with various individuals turned out to be spending the entire time with just one individual. This particular individual was already Orthodox, and I would usually have a brief conversation with him whenever he would come for Vespers. Given that there were six of us present, we didn’t want to overwhelm him by crowding around him. Instead, we spread out and allowed him to lead the conversation.

Afterward, we attempted to engage with some individuals in the yard, but due to time constraints and the administrative work we couldn’t. As an alternative, we went to the library and spoke with one individual. He shared his challenges within the facility and expressed his desire to be transferred to another facility in the future. Our conversation lasted approximately ten minutes before we went back into the auditorium to wrap up.

We sat in a circle to discuss our experiences for the day, though there wasn’t much to report as we didn’t seem to accomplish much. 

March 29

After the mix-up last week, I was hesitant to accompany the same chaplain again. However, I decided to give it another try. This time, we visited a floor that I have never gone to. The challenge we faced on this floor was that most of the individuals who usually engage with the seminarians were either asleep or working, so we had limited opportunities for conversation. I had a 30–40-minute conversation with one individual. He shared his life story and how he ended up on this specific unit. He explained that another individual punched him in the face for no apparent reason. He expressed confusion about the incident. He mentioned that he was put into solitary confinement for some time which led me to believe that there is more to the story than what he is telling us. This led him to discuss his thoughts on Armageddon. It was intriguing to hear his perspective as a Jehovah’s Witness, which is quite different from Orthodoxy. The conversation then shifted after he began talking about his ex-girlfriend. He repeatedly mentioned his ex-girlfriend leaving him for someone else, but would quickly add, “I don’t really care anymore. I’m over it.” I sensed that this was a defense mechanism he had developed, as he repeated it multiple times. I spoke with the other seminarian who was with me and he agreed to that too. 

Afterward, we all went in the auditorium for Vespers with everyone, as usual. The individuals truly enjoyed the seminarian choir leading the vespers service. Following vespers, a seminarian delivered a brief homily on the vespers psalm, Psalm 140:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” After the homily, I had one final conversation with Bob before my internship came to an end. We mostly recapped our previous conversation from a few weeks ago regarding his game plan upon his release on May 26th. It was encouraging to hear that he had already made necessary appointments to turn his life around. Reflecting on this moment, it felt like a full circle moment. From being complete strangers to building rapport with Bob made me truly understand how powerful prison ministry is. 

I am grateful to OCPM, St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, and Father John for giving me this internship opportunity. Being the first to experience the program had its challenges, but it was a transformative journey that helped me grow personally and as a minister. Leaving for seminary in 2018, I thought I had pushed myself out of my comfort zone, but God had other plans for me. Two important lessons stood out during the internship. First, Christ meets us where we are and calls us closer to Him. Likewise, we are called to extend love and care to those we encounter, especially those in prison. Second, personal growth happens when we step outside our comfort zones. I remember the advice my Spiritual Father gave me: imagine running at full speed towards a cliff. You can choose to stop or take the leap, trusting God to guide you to the next step. Leaving my comfort zone and spending two months away was challenging, particularly entering the prison environment. Reflecting on these past months, I see very clearly that God was always with me through every challenge. Prison ministry demands that we step out of our comfort zones to meet our brothers and sisters in their cells. It is our calling and responsibility to fulfill the words of our Lord, “I was in prison, and you came to Me.”

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