The Saints Prison Ministry sent a Pennsylvania team of ballplayers behind these stone walls. When the Saints came marching in, it was a day that transcended prison.Saints Prison Ministry
When a man is sent to prison, the first thing to be checked at the prison door – besides freedom, of course – is pride. Prison is a powerful equalizer, and a constant discouragement for anyone with an ego needing to be fed. The examples are legion, but I encountered one just weeks ago. I was in the prison ball field walking the perimeter one morning when the Assistant Director of the Recreation Department stopped me. “We’re hosting a ball team from the Saints Prison Ministry on July 9th,” he said, “and we’re putting together the best players from each of our teams to take them on.”
He had my utmost attention! I could not suppress the grin that was forming on my face as I eagerly awaited his next sentence. Seeming to notice, he hastily added, “So even though you’re not one of them, we’d like to invite you anyway in case you want to write about it.” It could have been worse, I suppose. He could have said, “We’d like to have you there in your official capacity” which, to be honest, is more or less to fetch water for the team these days. This is what my life in confinement is reduced to.
You don’t have to like baseball to read this post. In fact, it might even be an obstacle if you do. Something magical and wonderful took place out on that field on July 9th, and I’m not certain I have the writing skills to convey it with justice, but I’ll try.
Let’s start with the sport itself and get it out of the way, because it isn’t at all important to this story. In early fall, 2014, I wrote a post entitled “Prisoners of Summer.” It was about the championship season of the Legion of Angels (both current and fallen), the intramural prison softball team for which Pornchai Moontri serves as captain and pitcher. It’s an excellent team, and the fact that five of its players were chosen to play in the recent all-star game against the Saints Prison Ministry Team (not counting my water-carrying skills) is a testament to that fact.
American prisons in many states are confining and overcrowded, but imprisonment in northern New England has other consequences. The winter months are long, and a tough winter – like this most recent one – can magnify the feeling of confinement. Time in either solitary confinement or an oppressive absence of all solitude can derail a psyche and injure a soul. Prison is also a place of spiritual and emotional isolation. I wrote about the difference between solitude and isolation, and the soul-stirring importance of getting outside onto that field in the summer, in “Dostoevsky in Prison, and the Perils of Odysseus.”
It is not the physical violence of prison that is the most debilitating reality of prison. It is the spiritual violence that so reduces us as human beings. It is suffering with no apparent meaning behind it. It is oppressive confinement and emotional isolation, and, as Dostoevsky once wrote of prison, it is “year upon year of never, ever – not for a single moment – being alone with one’s self.”
WHEN THE SAINTS CAME MARCHING IN
When July 9th rolled around, I groaned when I looked out my cell window upon a bright, sunny day. A part of me hoped for rain, for an excuse to cancel the disruption to my prison routine. I wondered why I committed myself to spend the entire day in that field with these ball-playing evangelists. Pornchai Moontri, who was chosen for his skill as a pitcher, was a lot more enthusiastic. “See you out there!” he said as he bounded out the door at 7:00 AM. I just stared sullenly at my coffee and grunted some vague assent.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting when I was told that we were to spend an entire day playing against a team of Evangelical Christian men known as the Saints Prison Ministry. My first thought was that the prisoner players I know will squash them like bugs out on that field. My second thought – which actually was the more charitable one – was that we would be preached at incessantly all day. Frankly, most prisoners – myself included – would rather face a day-long root canal.
So at 8:30, I tightened my sneakers and headed out through the long series of barred doors and guarded checkpoints toward the prison ball field. The rest of the team and spectators proceeded in typical fashion: in T-shirts and prison-issue green slacks, scowling faces, heads bowed, a shaming sense that once again we’re about to be measured and judged by men who are free.
Then, almost immediately behind us, the Saints team, escorted by prison guards, descended onto that field. My first impression was to ditch the notion that we would squash them like evangelical bugs. There were fourteen of them. They had baseball uniforms. They had their own gloves and bats. I immediately wondered what the security people here thought when they saw these guys invade their prison carrying bats.
My second impression was that the prison guards seemed to suddenly disappear. They were still there, of course, but the presence of this team of true believers in baseball uniforms was so striking that all signs of prison seemed to suddenly evaporate. We in T-shirts formed into a sort of huddle as the team descended upon us, looked each of us in the eyes, grasped our hands, and made us instantly feel as though we were the brothers they had missed all year, and longed to see again. They acted as though it were an honor to be there with us, but my overpowering sense was that they were not acting at all. They were genuinely happy to be here with us, to play ball with us as their equals, and we were entirely disarmed.
There were also no sermons. There wasn’t a bullhorn or a Bible in sight. They said we had a tight schedule of three games – two that morning and one in the afternoon – so after all the hellos and handshakes, we went right into Game One. The Home Team took up positions in the field while the Saints were first up at bat.
Then all contention ceased. We were invited to have fun, and it was probably the most fun any of us has ever had in prison. In fact, the very notion that we were in prison receded into the background. The day sped by, and for reasons I’ll explain below – the part I called “magical and wonderful” – it was a day I cannot forget.
THE GRACE THAT SAVES
Prison wasn’t the only reality to recede into the background that day. The game of baseball itself took a back seat to something else. There was something in the air that was hard to describe. Other than the uniforms, the visiting team was not at all unlike the rest of us. They ranged in age from twenty to sixty, but besides the fact that they were very good at baseball, it was hard to tell the difference.
Except for one thing. They all seemed happy. Not just happy to be here, but happy. Most prisoners forget what that feels like, and many have a hard time imagining ever being happy. Between innings it became clear to me that these Visitors were not happy because life was great. They were happy because they have found something greater than life, and we were all ears.
Our team prevailed in that first game, but barely. I had a sense throughout that the Visitors were holding back a bit, and in Game Two we would face the full fury of their prodigious baseball skill. We did, and we got our butts kicked, but it didn’t matter much. By that point, we liked these guys so much we were happy to see them win.
Pornchai Moontri was pitching for the home team that day. There were others you might remember from my post, “Prisoners of Summer.” Bryan Lisio, Oliver Hooper, Andrew Lalos, Mark Maynard, some of the best players from Pornchai’s team were playing that day, as was Jeffrey Marshall, Pornchai’s friend and rival who usually contends with him for the season championship. Darryll Bifano and Gary Britton were umpires.
After the first game, the “magical” part of the day began to unfold. The Saints announced that they wanted to introduce a speaker. “Aha! Here it comes,” I thought, but I was wrong. In fact, I was shamefully wrong. One man stood up to tell a wonderful story of how he came to faith and what it has meant in his life, of how it has carried and sustained him through trials and suffering.
This was no TV-Evangelist pitch. There was no sectarian or doctrinal push. This was real faith expressed in the trenches of real life, and the prisoners present were riveted to these words. I was grateful to hear him. This guy said exactly what I have said to countless prisoners over twenty years that faith is necessary as food for your journey. It is not the reward for arriving.
Then one of the visiting evangelist-ballplayers handed out copies of the Gospel of Saint John, and a little brochure entitled “The Grace that Saves.” Immediately, from a bench fifteen feet away, Pornchai Moontri caught my eye and held up the brochure with a look of wonder. On its cover was the very same image of the prison window with its rays of light that captured me in our “About” page on These Stone Walls.
In Game Two, our not-so-tough-anymore team was clobbered. Then there was a small awards ceremony held on the field. The Saints Team announced a few awards including the day’s MVP, the Most Valuable Player award. Everyone cheered while Pornchai was presented with a book, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Sports New Testament which all the Saints team had signed. This was just a small precursor, however, to “The Grace that Saves” that was yet to come that day.
YOU THAT LABOR AND ARE HEAVY BURDENED
Now comes the part I find difficult to describe. During the morning games, the Recreation Department workers put together a lunch for the guests and our team in the prison gymnasium. There were six tables set up with five or six chairs at each. I saw two men from the Saints team who I really wanted to sit with because I had talked with them that morning, but all the seats there were taken. So I walked toward a table with two other men from the Saints with whom I had not conversed at all.
Then, spotting me about to sit there, Pornchai came over with his MVP award, and sat next to me across from the two Saints team members. I asked Wayne, the Saints player sitting across from Pornchai, what motivated him to spend summer days in a prison. A man just a few years younger than me, Wayne explained that he is a high school math teacher, a fact that got Pornchai’s attention because he excels at math. Wayne then said he wanted to do something important during the summer months. That explanation was left dangling for a moment, but I could feel electricity building in the air. Something important was going on here.
Wayne then asked Pornchai where he is from, and Pornchai explained that he was born in Thailand and brought to the United States when he was eleven years old. Wayne then asked him how long he has been in prison, and Pornchai said that he went to prison at age 18, twenty-three years ago.
Wayne looked at Pornchai in stricken silence for a moment. I had the strongest sense that we were arriving at the very purpose for our all being in the same place on that day. Wayne went on to tell us something that I think he had no intention of sharing that day. He said that some time ago, his twenty-six year-old son was killed when he tried to intervene with an intoxicated and enraged 18-year-old. Pornchai froze in his seat, and so did I. Wayne said that he spent a lot of years in vengeful anger, but the Lord took that away and transformed it into a desire to help those in prison. Wayne said that he was barred from reaching out to the young man who killed his son, so he instead sought to make prison itself a little better. “And so now I am here,” said Wayne, “to say that he is forgiven.”
If you have been looking at more recent additions to “Mercy to the Max” (Please do, and please share it with others and post it) then you already know what just happened here. I wonder what Wayne was thinking as he told this painful story and then looked at us. Just two feet to my right sat Pornchai Moontri who has spent the last 23 years of his life in prison wondering if he could ever be forgiven for taking the life of a 27-yearold man during a drunken and enraged struggle when he was 18-years-old. Here in this prison gym, seemingly by mere chance (Yeah, right!) he encountered the mirror image of his crime, and stared into the face of Divine Mercy as this faithful man traveled from Pennsylvania bearing this message of forgiveness.
It was a while before Pornchai could speak, but he then told Wayne that he was in prison for that same story. Pornchai spoke haltingly, on the verge of tears, of his years of rage and self-hatred, of his self-punishment during year after year of solitary confinement, of his transfer to New Hampshire, of our friendship, and of his conversion and hopes for the future.
I was thunderstruck, and could feel the electricity of grace between these two men who each answered a personal summons of the Holy Spirit to be here on this day and in that moment. It was one of the most grace-filled moments I have ever witnessed, and I could never forget it.
Pornchai then told Wayne that I am a Catholic priest. Wayne asked me what I thought of Evangelicals. I did not have a chance to answer, as we were all summoned for a photograph. It is exceedingly rare that photographs taken in prison are published, but here it is. That’s Wayne on bended knee in a Saints uniform in the front row on the left. Pornchai is in the same row holding a plaque. I’m on the far right.
Many times since that day, Jeffrey Marshall has told me what an inspiring and special day this was for him. Oliver Hooper also described it: “Through smiles, handshakes, hugs, jovial banter and a competitive ballgame, the gifts the Saints bring are immeasurable: friendship, the gift of freedom, the gift of hope, the gift of God’s love.”
So, Wayne, if you’re reading this, I didn’t get to answer your question. I think of Evangelicals as our brothers and sisters in Christ, and they have stepped onto the field of the Lord in this prison before. Charles Colson, the Evangelical founder of Prison Fellowship, was a dear friend of my great good friend, Father Richard John Neuhaus in whose memory These Stone Walls, is dedicated.
Together, with the personal encouragement of Pope John Paul II, and collaborating with (then) Father Avery Dulles and George Weigel, Father Neuhaus and Charles Colson formed” Evangelicals and Catholics Together”(ECT). It was a call to action based on a shared affirmation of Christ as Lord, and of the Apostles’ Creed as “an accurate statement of Scriptural truth.” ECT was described by Timothy George in the National Catholic Register (April 25, 2012) as “Charles Colson’s Ecumenism of the Trenches.”
But of most interest to me was a photo taken by the Associated Press in reporting on the death of Charles Colson in 2012. It was a 2002 photo of Mr. Colson standing in the New Hampshire State Prison ball field before a crowd of 500 prisoners to whom he declared the love of God and the reality of grace. When that photo was taken, I was standing but a few feet away.
A friend has sent me some pages from the Saints Prison Ministry website. It announced that a team from Pennsylvania would be in the New England region from July 8-12. After their visit here on July 9, the team moved on to the Maine State Prison. The website also describes some tips by various Christian athletes who have visited prisons since this fine organization was founded. One of the tips is “Your story is God’s unique work in your life. It can be the exact story someone needs to hear.”
If you are reading this, Wayne, I thank you for your fraternal presence that day, for indeed yours was the exact story someone needed to hear. Thank you also for responding to the Holy Spirit to be an instrument of grace – far more than you may ever know. You made our prison recede into the background for a day, and it was wondrous!