Finding Light in Dark Places

By Mike Benigno

Walter’s seven months in prison began and ended with a prayer. He had moved to New York from his home country a year after graduating college and had held a corporate job for 15 years. But by winter several years ago, Walter was 35 and had lost his job and even his apartment to addiction. Living homeless, on a January night, high and with nowhere left to go, he wandered into a church. “When you’re in addict mode,” Walter would later say, “your spiritual life is non-existent.” Yet he prayed that night, for the first time in so long. Several hours later, he had handcuffs around his wrists.

Walter was brought to the Manhattan Detention Center (MDC), a facility commonly known as the Tombs, which houses some 670 male detainees. As opposed to a state or federal prison, almost none of the men at the MDC have been sentenced yet for the crimes they were charged with. Some arrive just days after being arrested, residing in a temporary holding section until posting bail or being released. Those who don’t make bail live with up to 40 other detainees in one of a dozen or so “houses,” two-story units. Most exist in a holding pattern, waiting for court dates, dealing with lawyers, working on their case, struggling through life in jail.

Though this was his first arrest, a judge set Walter’s bail astronomically high, citing Walter’s status as a foreign citizen and the chance he might flee overseas. The amount was impossible for him to pay.

He spent much of the first two weeks sleeping. When he slowly began to venture out of his cell, fear set in.

 

A color sketch made by Robert, an inmate in the California State Prison, depicts when St. Ignatius was incarcerated.
“I’m sure they could tell I was scared to death, because I was,” Walter said. Others seemed to know how the system worked, but he had no idea. “I’d sit on the staircase on my own, and then people would come to talk to me. I think none of them understood my accent or believed my story because everybody lies. Everybody’s innocent in jail. Everyone.”

A few detainees began to show Walter the ropes: how the food line worked, who’s in charge of what, and which prisoners to avoid. After a friend wired him money for phone services and began visiting, he learned how to operate in the underground economy, trading calls for soup or candy bars. The environment was unstable. The experience of being locked in a cell was painful; there were men so mentally ill that they wasted their allotted phone time standing with a dead receiver, to delay and upset their rivals, and, by extension, everyone in line.

Walter had grown up Catholic, and three weeks into his stay, he spotted a young man, Zach Presutti, SJ, wearing a Roman collar. It was the man who ran the Catholic retreat on Friday nights, he learned. And he was a Jesuit, which astounded Walter.

One of Walter’s family members overseas had graduated from a Jesuit high school and college. His mother was also familiar and even friendly with Jesuits in their home town. “I remember the first time I saw him,” Walter said. “I said, ‘I’m going to be safe now.’ I was convinced that it did not happen by coincidence.”

Missioned to the Margins

It was no coincidence that a Jesuit was walking the common area at the MDC that day. St. Ignatius himself, founder of the Society of Jesus, envisioned a religious order of men whose cloister was the world. As the Jesuit historian John O’Malley, SJ, notes, even the earliest members of the Society would have been found in places like hospitals, prisons, orphanages, and places of refuge for vulnerable women.

As the United States developed, Jesuits in the Northeast consoled the sick and dying in hospitals and institutions, served the poor living in crowded sections of Boston and New York City, and ministered in asylums for the chronically sick and mentally ill.

Over the years, Jesuits became popularly known as educators, but providing spiritual and social relief for the needy remains very much at the heart of Ignatian spirituality, intrinsic, in fact, to the pastoral understanding of Jesuits.


Zach Presutti, SJ, founder and executive director of THRIVE for Life.
The roots of THRIVE for Life stem back to 2011. As a Jesuit novice, Zach, was sent to work in a jail. He took phone numbers down for people and made phone calls to their loved ones. “I fell in love with it,” he said. “I found the conversations and encounters I was having to be so profound and so deep, so quickly.”

Soon after, the Jesuit provincial asked Zach to get a master’s degree in social work. He managed to do clinical work in a prison near St. Louis University, and when he returned to the Northeast, his superiors supported his desire to focus on ministering to the incarcerated.

“I didn’t wake up one day and say it’s a great idea to do criminal justice reform,” Zach admits. “I was transformed by the people that I met—their names, their faces and their stories. These were relationships I was building, and that’s why I felt myself coming toward this work, to empower others to thrive.”

Volunteers like Tracey Tynan and Patty Hughes, who head the social justice committees at St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius Loyola, Manhattan’s two Jesuit parishes, were eager to become involved. Several months after Pope Francis’ U.S. visit, Tracey still felt inspired by the fact that the pope had made deliberate stops to pray with incarcerated men and women in each major city.

When Tracey and Patty met up with Zach, he was still in the early stages of envisioning a program that would entail two components: still without a name when they joined Zach for the very first Friday night retreat at the MDC, in January 2016.

Close Your Eyes

The sights and sounds of jail are as traumatic as one might expect. “It’s an assault on your senses,” Tracey said, recalling her first volunteer experience.

A loud tone sounds each time the guard buzzes someone into the drafty White Street entryway. Volunteers stuff their personal items into small lockers and join others—lawyers, visitors and newly released individuals seeking Metrocards—waiting for the loud pop of an electronic bolt door, giving them entry into the check-in area. They turn over their last remaining possession, their ID, to the guard for a guest pass and walk through a metal detector. Hands are stamped, several more doors are unlocked. An escort brings visitors into an elevator and down a small hallway that offers only fleeting glimpses of men in tan jail uniforms down other hallways, through reinforced glass windows.

Then, the experience upturns just about every expectation.

They are chatty and warm as they bring out Bibles and prayer cards, and rearrange seating in the chapel, a small cinder block room with painted murals and bench seating. The volunteers are people like Sabina, from Italy, who attends St. Ignatius Loyola Parish, John, a lawyer and the director of the Spiritual Exercises program at St. Francis Xavier Church, and Mary, a Xavier parishioner.

The corrections officers outside of the chapel and the nearby law library strike you as just people from throughout the boroughs. There isn’t any resentful tone toward volunteers coming in to serve the men whose behavior they oversee. They stop what they’re doing to meet each volunteer and shake hands.

The detainees arrive. They look you in the eye, smile and shake hands as they enter. They remember the names of even brand new volunteers. There are no handcuffs or shackles, but, in matching uniforms, they take seats quietly throughout the room. Some steal a few moments alone; others read the Bible or get up to greet fellow detainees, handshakes coming in for a short pound.

Even Zach doesn’t fit the expectation for a prison chaplain. He’s 33 and grew up in upstate New York. With a beard and glasses, he looks more like someone you’d see walking the street in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, instead of rearranging the MDC chapel. To detainees, it doesn’t matter that he’s a Jesuit regent in formation, someone not yet a priest. He’s Brother Zach, or Father Zach, or, as some have called him, “the hipster priest that talks about love all the time.”

When the room is full, Brother Zach comes to life.

“I’m going to ask you to do something I know you’re not used to doing, especially here,” he begins. “Close your eyes for a moment. Now, imagine you’re on a beach,” he begins. “Your feet are in the sand, and it’s quiet and warm. You feel the sun shining on your skin, and it’s just you and the ocean. You begin to feel the presence of God there with you, a comforting presence in this beautiful setting.”

For several minutes, Zach’s voice lets the men transcend cinder block walls, the guards in the hallway, and the half dozen or more locked doors between them and the outside. All 20 men sit silently on chairs packed close to one another. In these moments, crimes don’t matter. Court dates don’t matter. All eyes are closed, including Zach’s. There’s a palpable peace. Zach slowly guides them back to their presence in the room. Eyes open, and after breathing exercises, the Ignatian Examen —a reflection process penned by the founder of the Jesuits nearly 500 years ago—continues.

 
The men are asked to review their week, to discover the ways they saw God at work in their life. They’re invited, and are often eager, to share their stories—about a former rival asking to borrow a phone call, or a charge being downgraded to a misdemeanor.

Then they’re asked to explore their challenges. In hearing their struggles, they let those in the room bear witness to their burdens and their humanity—waiting six weeks for a 15-second appearance before a judge, the looming threat of being transferred somewhere else like Riker’s Island, the sorrows that come from a second or third incarceration after years living on the outside.

The Examen ends with an exploration of what they can do the next day to be more generous and loving. After a scripture reading and a short reflection, Zach reminds them that God loves them more than they will ever know. The retreat closes with a group prayer, done in a circle holding hands.

All of this in an environment where exploring feelings and expressing joy are completely foreign—even unwelcomed— concepts.

Walter joined Zach and the volunteers at some point in February 2016, about four weeks into his stay in jail. “With my story and the last few years of my life, that first message that Zach shared, that you are still loved, was something that I forgot,” he said. “This was one hour where I forgot where I was. It gave me hope at that time.”

He attended Zach’s weekly retreats through the entire progression of his court case. By the time of Walter’s plea deal, he had been doing the Examen alone each night in his cell for four months.

THRIVE for Life

A full year after its start, the prison ministry program has a name—THRIVE for Life—and is housed in an office at Xavier High School in New York City. Zach and volunteers continue the regularly scheduled, weekly retreats for detainees at the MDC and have expanded to serve five other jails and prisons throughout New York State on a steady basis.

Oftentimes, there is very little time for volunteers to speak individually with the prisoners, but the act of remembering names, stories, struggles has brought meaning to detainees’ lives. “Many times, we’re the only people from the outside that they will see during their whole time in jail,” Tracey said.


Tracey Tynan, a THRIVE for Life volunteer and head of the social justice committee at St. Francis Xavier Church.
It is not uncommon for Zach and several volunteers to rent a car and book hotel rooms, hosting weekend retreats for inmates at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, or those imprisoned elsewhere in places like Otisville, N.Y. Over the past year, THRIVE has partnered not only with parishioners and other volunteers, but also with students at New York’s Regis High School, who have made several trips to Riker’s Island.

Aside from the retreats, which fulfill the contemplation portion of THRIVE’s mission, the program has expanded to include life skills programs for incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals. THRIVE also aids family members of those imprisoned.

Today, Walter lives in New York City. He attends mandatory narcotics counseling and is still connected with THRIVE. On one afternoon in January, he joined Zach for a long subway ride, delivering a clothing donation to a man who had just been released from prison. He recently accepted a scholarship to begin studies at a local college and is excited about the prospect of beginning a career in graphic design.


 
With the cooperation of MDC leadership, THRIVE has established a learning and resource center at the detention center. In February, a pile of boxes took up a corner of the THRIVE office, filled with books that had been donated by others. This spring, THRIVE will become an independent 501 (c)(3) organization.

“When I see Zach doing something that has meaning for him, I’ve never had that in my life, but I know that I can get there,” Walter said. “THRIVE could be the platform that helps me find what’s meaningful for me. Right now, it makes sense in my life. I have a long way to go, but THRIVE brought me a sense of higher power, of community and hope.”

When Tracey talks about THRIVE, she takes on an energetic air. But when pressed for what deeper meaning she might see in her service, she becomes more pensive.

“Anyone can go astray, even the privileged” she said. “But for someone who’s had very few chances in life, or whose parents forced them to sell drugs at age 10, they simply deserve a shot. THRIVE shows detainees that God loves them, and if you go through the retreats with us, you’ll see that there is nothing you can do that will make God not love you. Every human being is worthy of God’s love. All you have to do is accept.”

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