Week 34– July 20, 2015
Entered -- August 1987
Took Vows -- August 1989
Ordained -- June 2004
Fr. Williams serves as the Catholic chaplain at San Quentin State Prison, Marin County, California and is an adjunct professor of pastoral ministry at the Jesuit School of Theology at Santa Clara University.
"What makes me happy to be a religious today?"
While serving as an officer in the US Air Force, I met Jesuits working in remote parts of Alaska. I was impressed with their faith, their dedication and their senses of humor. Through them I began to discern God calling me to serve Him. The mission of the Society of Jesus, "The service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement" spoke to my heart. I wanted to serve Christ in the poor and marginalized. Of course I had no idea what that would look like.
While in the novitiate I chose to do an 'experiment' -- apostolic work in a Massachusetts State Prison near Boston. I chose it because the thought of prison terrified me. But it quickly became clear to me that I was seeing Jesus's face in the faces of the men I met in the prison. This has remained true for me -- and 22 years later, I feel so incredibly blessed to be working at San Quentin State Prison.
In the Formula of the Institute, (the foundational document of the Society of Jesus), St Ignatius wrote a line that is often overlooked: "Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, ....should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons ..."
I feel joy and gratitude every day I drive over the bridge and see the prison - in this darkest of places, I find God's light every day. I continue to see Christ in the men here. Not all of them, and not all the time, but often enough to confirm that this is truly where God has been calling me since I chose to say "yes" to His invitation to enter the Society of Jesus. Nowhere is this more vivid than on death row. The "chapel" in San Quentin State Prison's Death Row is a windowless old shower room encased in a heavy metal cage. Inside it there are 6 wooden benches bolted to the floor upon which the members of my congregation sit. I stand, wearing a black stab-proof vest that the prison requires all to wear while on "the row." There is a harsh florescent light overhead, and as I raise the Blessed Sacrament, the light illuminates it. I look at the men in their cage. They are quiet and focused. It's at this point of the Mass that I often imagine, as I am standing there facing them, separated by the steel mesh, that the light of Christ is streaming forth from that host, dispelling the dark shadows of "East Block." Prison ministry has been the greatest joy of my life - a sign that even in midst of a man-made hell, the gates of heaven are near and open.