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10 October: Prisoners’ Sunday 2021

For forty years now, Prisons Week has encouraged Christian individuals and churches to pray for the needs of all those affected by prisons: prisoners and their families, victims of crime and their communities, those working in the criminal justice system and the many people caring for those affected by crime inside and outside our prisons.

Prisons Week raises awareness and generates prayer. It motivates volunteers to step forward and give their time and gifts, in prisons and in their own communities. It provides an annual focus and reason for Christians to work together, building capacity and motivation to make a difference for people who are out of sight and often out of mind.

Today is Prisons Sunday – the second Sunday in October – marking the beginning of the week of prayer, which runs until Saturday.

Here’s a reflection from our friend Eddie Gilmore of the London Irish Chaplaincy, which supports Irish prisoners in England. It shows how effective this ministry can be, in God’s good time.

The Power of Kindness

By Eddie Gilmore

“We never know, at the time, the ripple of consequences set in motion by the slightest act of kindness.” Those words of the late Jonathan Sacks seem especially apt in the case of a man helped recently by the Irish Chaplaincy.

One of our team, Fiona, had, before the pandemic, begun to visit a Traveller man in one of the big London prisons. He was in segregation, ‘seg’, due to making threats to prison staff and having a weapon smuggled into the prison via a corrupt officer. His original sentence had been four years but he had served sixteen due to poor compliance and aggressive behaviour. Like many of those we meet in prison he had lived a chaotic lifestyle. His childhood included his father committing suicide when he was ten and his mother becoming a drug addict shortly afterwards. I can imagine that he had not received a great deal of kindness growing up. Tragically several of his sons are also in the criminal justice system. Fiona took an interest in him and she would often tell me in supervision about the hilarious comments he would make about various things. He was clearly responding to someone simply giving him a bit of positive attention and treating him in a different way to how he was probably used to being treated.

With prison visiting not possible through the lockdown the contact continued via phone. His aggressive behaviour diminished. He also heard that Fiona had managed to get two other Traveller men from the same prison into a rehab. facility following their release and he began to see this as a possible future option for himself. Eventually Fiona managed to get him considered for parole, and supported him closely through the process. And then one morning we all received an e-mail from Fiona with the incredible news that the parole outcome had been successful. He has just been released and has gone voluntarily into the rehab facility. It’s very early days and there is a lot of anxiety on his part but for him to have got to this point from where he was is nothing short of miraculous.

My background will have been very different to that of the man mentioned above: a stable home with a loving family and lots of opportunities. And yet, there have particular times in my own life when a simple act of kindness has been transformative, and has almost certainly inspired in me the wish to do likewise to others. When I eat my pre- big cycle bowl of porridge I’m often reminded of an act of kindness that was shown to me over twenty years ago. When spending a year in Seoul with Yim Soon and our three then young children I used to go once a month to spend twenty-four hours with the Columbans, a bunch of very welcoming and very entertaining Irish missionary priests (and it was the Columbans who founded the Irish Chaplaincy back in 1957). It was a little oasis for me: a chance to rest, relax, speak English, hear some funny stories, drink ‘real’ tea. One time at breakfast one of the guys, Pat Muldoon, was served with a big bowl of porridge which had been made specially for him. A usual Korean breakfast is much like lunch or dinner: rice together with various side dishes, some of them very spicy, a bowl of soup, meat, maybe even some raw fish for a special treat! He must have seen my eyes light up at the sight of the porridge because he put the bowl in front of me and walked off. True enough, after months of Korean style breakfasts, delicious as they were, all I wanted that morning was a bowl of simple, plain porridge served with a little sprinkling of sugar and a little bit of milk. I’ll never ever forget that gesture of Pat that meant the world to me at the time, nor the words he said to me on every visit, “Be nice to yourself.”

Sacks goes on to say that every day gives each of us an opportunity to change a life and by so doing to change the world, and he concludes that, “We mend the world one life at a time, one act at a time, one day at a time,” and that, “Every good act, every healing gesture, lights a candle of hope in a dark world.”

(Quotes taken from: ‘To heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility’ by Jonathan Sacks)

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21 August: come a few degrees Southwards

Anachronistic by more than 60 years! The penny post was not established until 1840.

It’s holiday season, and was so in August 1780. Johnson writes to invite a Scottish friend to come and enjoy the bright lights of London, but a little later perhaps, when winter is drawing in.

To DR. BEATTIE, AT ABERDEEN.

Sir,

More years than I have any delight to reckon, have past since you and I saw one another; of this, however, there is no reason for making any reprehensory complaint—Sic fata ferunt*. But methinks there might pass some small interchange of regard between us.

If you say, that I ought to have written, I now write; and I write to tell you, that I have much kindness for you and Mrs. Beattie; and that I wish your health better, and your life long. Try change of air, and come a few degrees Southwards: a softer climate may do you both good; winter is coming on; and London will be warmer, and gayer, and busier, and more fertile of amusement than Aberdeen.

More news I have not to tell you, and therefore you must be contented with hearing, what I know not whether you much wish to hear, that I am, Sir,

Your most humble servant,
SAM. JOHNSON.

August 21, 1780.

Life of Johnson, Volume 3 1776-1780 by James Boswell.

* That’s how the fates worked out.

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6 August, Going Viral LXXXIX: Changing insights about death.

Starlings gathering, August 3 2021, Graveney, Kent

The Global Sisters’ Report ran this article by Franciscan Sister Laura Hammel which discusses her changing reactions to death: death of family and other dear ones, and most especially of the recent death of a sister who had shared her life for 45 years. When Sister Laurene Burns was in hospital, COVID-19 prevented members of her community from visiting; they brought her home to die with them. Insightful indeed. Follow the link!

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1 August: Missionary travel, 1934 style.

In order to give the superiors a little encouragement in the way of making a missionary of me, I at last was able to acquire a second hand motor-bike and sidecar (plus of course a debt!) and was given charge of five villages (don’t imagine “village”, think of forests, banana gardens, cotton fields + very scattered huts). I did the sick calls for a month + two safaris. Bedding and everything packed off to a mud house in the woods seven miles away and then I nearly died of fatigue. Quite frankly exhausted. Hut to hut visiting over fields, rocks, ruts …. For hours and hours each day. Little sleep at night because of rats and spiders …. How I learnt to admire the real missionaries! Those who do this always.

It’s 1934, and Fr Arthur Hughes, recently arrived in Uganda, is trying to get away from being a desk jockey; he was the bishop’s secretary. Different times! The missionaries had vast areas to cover and the motor bike was a reasonably efficient and cheap means of getting about; he had used one extensively in England earlier. Not very many years before this, a push bike was considered something of a luxury for a missionary. Arthur is writing to his sister Winifred in London; we have kept his punctuation.

Nowadays there are many Ugandan priests, serving God and their people, but from before Fr Hughes’s time to the present day, the Church has been held together through the work of lay catechists. Tomorrow we will be visiting them in Uganda, and finding more about this long-established ministry which has at last been formally recognised by Pope Francis.

Spiders look bigger in the dark with only a hurricane lamp to see by.

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28 February: Blessed William Richardson

You never know what you might find on the Web! I’d never heard of Blessed William Richardson till I saw his name in Hallam News, from the Catholic South Yorkshire diocese. A remarkably brave man to go prison visiting among Catholics, aware that he might be betrayed at any time. The full article from which this is taken can be found here. Remembering him, we also honour Christians of many allegiances, killed for their beliefs, and pray that we may continue to work to bring all our communities together.

Blessed William Richardson grew up close to where the South Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire borders meet.

We know from the Entry Book in the English College in Spain that William was a convert to the Catholic faith and was received into the Church by one of the clergy at Wiesloch, Germany, where at that time he was working.  He was called to the priesthood, attended the English College in Spain, studying Philosophy and Theology, and was ordained priest there in 1594 and then returned to England.

Most of William’s life was spent working in London often with the legal profession in the Inns of Court.  He visited prisons as an ordinary visitor, to take Mass to Catholics imprisoned for their faith, and he was sentenced to death after being betrayed by a priest catcher.  His execution took place on Tyburn Gallows, by the barbaric act of being hung, drawn and quartered on 17 February in 1603.  There is no knowledge of his last resting place, but if we can find a King under a car park, we may one day learn of his last resting place.

William’s death was in the reign of Elizabeth 1 and he was the last priest to be murdered at that time.  Elizabeth 1 died one week later.  Bishop Challoner tells us he accepted his death with such constancy and faith, and praying for the Queen, that impressed his executioners.

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16 October: In Prison and you came to visit me

It’s a while since we heard from the Irish Chaplaincy in London, but they’ve been busy. Here Eddie tells us about work for prisoners that continues out of sight and mind of most of us.

Jesus was speaking in a time long before the coronavirus came along and put a stop to prison visiting.

During the pandemic many prisoners have been banged-up (confined to their cells) for up to 23 ½ hours per day, and with activities and education cancelled. Most work too has been suspended, and with it the chance to earn a little bit of money with which to purchase basic necessities or make a phone call. One of the letters we received showed the unenviable choice about how to spend the daily half an hour of ‘freedom’: to take a shower; to join the queue for the phone (assuming you have the means to make a call); or to go into the exercise yard, where there may be a distinct lack of social distancing. Travellers have been perhaps particularly affected by this confinement in a tiny space for large periods of time.

The fantastic team at the Irish Chaplaincy has been unable to make the usual regular visits to the hundreds of Irish and Irish traveller prisoners in England & Wales, but has been as busy as ever, supporting people in other ways. There have been many phone calls, including to the families of prisoners (often back in Ireland), and to various prison staff; and at Easter over 1,000 people were contacted via ‘e-mail a prisoner’ with an individual message of hope and a special prayer written by our Fr Gerry. Phone credit has been provided to many people, so they can keep in touch with loved ones. And it is this maintenance of family contact which is said to be the single most crucial factor in eventual successful rehabilitation.

The team has supplied in-cell resources to about 500 people, which have included books, CDs, mindful-colouring, pens, puzzles, games and hobby equipment. And 103 Irish women in custody were sent a special pack (seen in the above picture). One recipient wrote from HMP Bronzefield:

The colouring book is so lovely, means so much, made me cry. I love felt tip pens also, really helps me with mental health side.”

There have been many other messages of thanks, including this recent one:

Yous are lovely people and if I ever get out I’d like to volunteer if of course you need any help with anything as I think yous do amazing service to people in difficult situations.”

The team is now assembling and sending out ‘Keeping Connected’ packs, comprising: notepad, a pack of envelopes, greetings cards, nice pens, credit for stamps, and a prayer card. Again, this will facilitate the crucial contact with family at a time when visits are not happening.

The team will be much in demand for their visiting, at such time as they can resume. For the time being, the amazing service continues.

By Eddie Gilmore

October 11th-17th 2020 is Prisons Week

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