Each year the COMISS Network promotes Spiritual Care Week. It is an occasion to recognize the different disciplines who offer spiritual care to persons. The theme for 2019 is Cultivating Space. Throughout this week you will hear from CBF endorsed chaplains and pastoral counselors as they focus on this theme. Below is Part 3. Learn more about Spiritual Care Week at spiritualcareweek.org.
By Carol Sasser Dalton
She stops dead in her tracks in the office doorway, breathes deeply and says, “It smells so good in here,” and then she’s in tears before she ever sits down.
Everything in prison smells the same, but not the chaplain’s office. Often I will ask, “What do you smell?” The response is usually slow coming. She thinks hard and tries to remember. Sometimes she identifies coffee or candles or lavender, but most often the answer is that it just smells better.
The chaplains at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women (SCCW) have a separate building. It is an actual chapel with padded pews and carpet on the floors, a vaulted ceiling with skylights, and windows that look out over the Swannanoa Valley and surrounding mountains. In the far corner is nestled our little office. One woman said, “It looks like an office, but it doesn’t feel like an office.” I asked her to say more. “Well, you have a desk, but it’s against the wall. It’s not between us. It’s open.” She went on to talk about feeling welcomed. She said, “I think it’s the spirit in the room.”
We chaplains at SCCW are quite fortunate to be set apart—not just in a separate space, but also we are not state employees. For 20 years the Ministry of Hope nonprofit has provided chaplains for incarcerated women here. We have the same education requirements and follow the same policies as state-funded chaplains, but we don’t receive any state compensation in this minimum security prison, and that’s okay with me!
When women realize we are not state employees, sometimes they talk a little more freely, but I really think their ability to open up and share their personal stories is more about feeling welcomed and knowing they are seen and heard.
Hospitality may be more about using good active listening skills than it is about the space. Frankly, sometimes the space becomes a barrier.
One woman told me she could not talk to me in the chapel because it brought back so much trauma related to church. So I agreed to find another office to use for our conversations. I was not only able to meet her where she was—unable to come inside a building that looks like a church—but I also was able to accept her as a Muslim woman. She didn’t need to conform to any system of beliefs in order to be accepted as one who is a beloved child of God, and knowing someone was here to protect her religious rights helped her to feel safe.
Hospitality is about accepting the interruptions as opportunities.
When a resident walks in early for Bible study and asks if I have a few minutes, I have to make a choice: tell the truth (I have a deadline) or stop what I’m doing, turn around, and say, “I can spare a few. What’s on your mind?” And in those moments, I can see the pain. I recall that her husband died—three months yesterday, she reminds me. She pours out her anger at the woman in her building who got married in the chapel a couple of weeks ago. We work at reframing, and I encourage her to acknowledge her pain. She tells me that she realizes it’s probably not something the other woman is doing intentionally. She says just talking it through helps, and then she goes into the chapel to the warm welcome of dedicated volunteers.
Such a small thing—having an office that smells different from the rest of prison. It’s a stark contrast to razor wire, metal bunks, concrete walls and floors, but the spirit makes the real difference. We try to maintain a spirit of hospitality. A spirit that says, “I see you—not a number, not a crime, but you, just as you are.” My prayer each day is to do no harm, to be a less-anxious presence, and to allow God’s unconditional love to flow through me into the lives of the people I meet. May it be so.
Carol Sasser Dalton is a CBF endorsed Chaplain serving at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women in Swannanoa, N.C.