Martin B. Copenhaver is senior pastor of Wellesley Congregational Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, and coauthor (with Lillian Daniel) of This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.
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Earlier this year I got an email from a minister named Bonnie Roseborough, who, in addition to her ministry at a church in suburban New York, is a volunteer chaplain at Sing Sing prison. In that email, she told me that she teaches a class, offered by New York Theological Seminary, for prisoners at Sing Sing. As you may know, Sing Sing is a maximum security prison in Ossining, just north of New York City on the Hudson River. In fact, that’s where the expression “sent up the river” comes from. Most of the prisoners are from New York City. If you are found guilty of a violent crime, you are sent “up the river” to Sing Sing.
The class taught by Bonnie Roseborough is called Foundations of Ministry. It meets for two-and-a-half hours every Wednesday afternoon on the prison grounds. She was writing me because she thought I might be interested that the students in her Sing Sing class were reading a book I coauthored with another minister, Lillian Daniel. The book is called This Odd and Wondrous Calling. It offers some personal reflections on the vocation of pastoral ministry. And, indeed, I was curious both about the class and about how the prisoners were responding to the book. So I wrote Pastor Bonnie, as I learned she is called, with some questions. After a bit of back-and-forth on email, she asked if we might be interested in meeting with her class at Sing Sing.
So we did. I have been to prisons before, but frankly, this was something different for me. We learned from Pastor Bonnie that the class has fifteen men enrolled, all of whom are doing “hard time” for violent crimes. They are all serving sentences of over twenty-five years. Some are serving life sentences.
What is your picture of someone found guilty of a violent crime and serving a long prison sentence? I tried to stay open, to not have too many preconceived notions, but I must admit that I wasn’t entirely successful in that. I did have something of a picture. I pictured that the men in the class would be hardened by their experience, guarded, maybe sullen or cynical, perhaps even scornful of these two suburban ministers coming to meet with them. After all, what would we have to say that would be of interest or relevance to their lives?
So after we met Pastor Bonnie, we waited for all of the security measures to be completed. (I learned that, not only is it hard to get out of Sing Sing, it’s not easy to get in, either.) I asked her, “So what do the men in the class make of our coming today?” She said, “Oh, they’re really looking forward to it. They have so little interaction with the outside world. They often feel forgotten, locked up with the key thrown away.”
After our identities were verified, and we had been frisked, we were asked to sign a book, something like an enormous guest book, heavy as a millstone, with yellowed pages that must have gone back years. We went through a lot of doors that would shut behind us with a decisive clang. The room where the class is taught looked like a basement room in an old church where there is a lot of deferred maintenance — cinderblock walls, peeling paint, a leaky steam radiator that hissed like a snake. But I only saw that later. What I saw at first were the prisoners who got up to shake our hands, to thank us for coming, to ask, “Would you like a glass of water or some tea?” I just wasn’t expecting that.
We sat down. Pastor Bonnie introduced us to the class and then asked the prisoners to introduce themselves. I think the man in the group who had served the least time had been in Sing Sing for fifteen years, others much longer. At least one man had been in that prison for over thirty years. (I try to remember what I was doing thirty years ago.) It was later explained to us that, in the prison system, it takes a great deal of time to earn the privilege to attend such a class, so it only makes sense that we would see people who had been there for many years.
The members of the class had prepared for our visit, and the prisoners’ first question was about the nature of pastoral authority. By the way, in my work with new pastors, I have learned that pastoral authority is one of the first things they have questions about. But I still found it curious that this was the first question in this setting. But then the teacher asked the members of the class, “What are the signs of authority here?”
“Handcuffs, badges, nightsticks,” one man said. “Guns. Mace,” said another. So, yes, what is the source of a pastor’s authority when you don’t have any of those things?
There is much more that I could tell you about this experience, but let me summarize by saying that any preconceived notions I might have had were completely blown out of the water. We were warmly welcomed by the men in the class. They were eager to engage with the book and with us. Several of the men were so articulate that, if you closed your eyes, you might think that you were in a seminary classroom at Yale or Princeton. Here’s an example: When Pastor Bonnie asked the class, “What is your definition of evil?” one student (I mean, prisoner) gave a definition that was so thoughtful and brilliantly phrased that Pastor Bonnie came back, “George, did you get that answer from a catechism or something?” He said, “No, I got it from my head.”
At one point, one of the men said, “So, Martin, in the book you wrote about your wife. How is she? I mean, did she ever go back to that room where she made the banners for worship?” — which is a story I told in the book. He wanted to know how the story ended. Another man asked my co-author, “Lillian, how is your son with diabetes?”
We also learned that the prisoners had raised over six thousand dollars for a local food pantry from the 22 cents an hour that they received for doing menial work. They had also earned enough money to provide back-to-school kits — including items like pencils and even backpacks — for each child who visits the prison. I just never would have imagined. . . .
I am not going to draw any grand conclusions from my experience. I don’t know if these men should be in prison. I don’t know if they received justice. I don’t have a well-informed understanding of our penal system. I am sure that aspects of prison life are very different from what I experienced in that room. But I can say this: during my visit to Sing Sing, it was this particular question of Jesus that I carried with me, somehow smuggled in through security. And that’s a good thing, because I couldn’t have left the question behind if I tried. Referring to a sinner before him, Jesus asked, “Do you see this woman?” That’s the question that echoed in my ears as we met with the men in the class: “Do you see this man?” Can you clear away the stereotypes and the preconceived notions and the condemnations long enough to see this man? After all, the physical walls of the prison are not the only thing preventing you from seeing these men.
As the time approached for the class to end, one of the students spoke up and said, “I’m sorry, Pastor Bonnie, but we have only fifteen minutes to go. I want to make sure we get our books signed before it’s too late. Then, if we’ve got some time, we can come back to this discussion.” And at that they all stood up and formed a kind of line. They all wanted their books signed.
So I signed each book, with the man’s name and these words, “With every good wish and best blessing, Martin.” And, unlike other times when I have signed books, after I finished writing in each book, I didn’t remain seated. I stood up from the table to shake each man’s hand. I wanted to be able to look each one in the eyes. I wanted, for once, as best as I could, to be able to answer Jesus’ question: “Do you see this man?”
Click to order Lillian Daniel and Martin B. Copenhaver’s This Odd and Wondrous Calling: The Public and Private Lives of Two Ministers.
The above sermon is reproduced with permission from Journal for Preachers.