January 3, 2019

For over a decade a small group of us from LABC, usually Declan Brown, Dave Gattey, Skip Keller and myself, have driven down Interstate 880 in the days before Christmas (we do the same in the days before Easter) to join Chaplain Dave Robinson in his ministry at the Elmwood Correctional Facility in Milpitas (Santa Clara County). Typically, we lead a worship service and offer communion in one of the men’s cell blocks.

This December only the Reverend Mr. Gattey and I were able to join Chaplain Robinson. We went into one of the several two-storied cell blocks and Dave called out, inviting anyone who would like to do church and have communion to join us in one of the multi-purpose rooms just off the main common area. Eleven of the brothers, all wearing brown jumpsuits, most heavily tattooed, some speaking English and some speaking Spanish, joined us for the service.

Chaplain Robinson introduced himself, Dave G. and me, asked if anyone would like one of the Bibles or any of the devotional material he had (most took something) and then asked Dave G. to teach us a song, something he had volunteered to do as we planned the gathering. The words to the chorus he taught us were:

Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.
I will never leave you. I will always love you.
I will never leave you. I will always love you.
Listen, listen, listen to my heart song.

We sang a few carols, another chorus and then Chaplain Robinson invited the brothers to pray. Almost all prayed. Some prayed in English. Some prayed in Spanish. They prayed for their families. They prayed for themselves. They prayed for the judges they would appear before. They prayed for attorneys prosecuting them. They prayed for the homeless. They prayed for the hungry. They prayed for forgiveness and hope.

I then read Matthew 1:23 – “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” Then, just as I was preparing to invite the brothers to discuss together the significance of “God with us,” an alarm went off. They knew exactly what it meant, saying, “Lockdown” as they hurriedly exited the room and headed to their cells. Chaplain Robinson said, “It happens a lot. Let’s go to one of the outside rooms and see if it will end quickly.” Any number of things can precipitate a lock down – a fight, a security threat or an equipment malfunction among them. In our case, it was a suicide attempt in another cell block. Because an ambulance needed to be called, the lockdown was extended and our worship service was never completed.

I wish we could have talked about “God with us.” It is a name, a promise, full of hope. I wish we could have served communion to the brothers. The bread and the cup are living symbols that God is with us. Instead, there is the regret of the service left uncompleted. Instead there is concern for the person that tried to take his own life. That regret and that concern will stand as reminders of the difficult lives of the incarcerated and those entrusted with their care. They will stand as reminders of the significance of Emmanuel, especially to those who spend many hours locked in their cells, cut off from other humans but not cut off from God.

Jim H.

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