2009-04-02 ns (3/20) 5th Thursday of Great Lent.

Prison Ministry

Hackberry trees


Just showing up


Yesterday I went to the Hughes unit jail. I did not want to go, but so what? It always works out that I am glad I went.


For some of these guys, I am the ONLY person they see from the outside. They write me too, but I seem to find it easier to drive about 3-4 hours each way to Gatesville twice a month rather than write letters. Go figure.


Two of my guys from Hughes have transferred. One is out of prison, and “off paper” (he served his entire sentence), and another is getting probation soon. The latter I baptized some years ago.


I got into prison ministry by “accident” or “serendipity” (there is serendipity in ministry as often as there is “army intelligence”!). A young man came to our church about 11 or 12 years ago, with two parishioners, with whom he was friends. I talked with him for 5 hours Sunday afternoon under the Hackberry tree in the front yard of All Saints about all kinds of spiritual things. A few days later, he turned himself in regarding a legal matter. I started visiting him in the Fort Worth jail. For about two years (so much for a constitutionally guaranteed right to a speedy trial!)  From there, I followed him to the Hughes unit, and baptized him.


The day he was baptized, two other men showed up, because the prison grapevine (unlike the Internet, it never goes down) told them about the service. One was already Orthodox, having been baptized by Fr Duane Pederson, who was involved in significant the “Orthodox Prison Ministry” with the Antiochians. His friend and he had been praying for TWO years for a priest to come, so that he could be baptized. So I came, and eventually baptized him.


It turns out my first prison convert is quite the Apostle, and two of his close friends are now in catechesis.


And all I did was talk to a guy under a Hackberry tree!


So much happens in God’s plan without us knowing, understanding or even needing to know. All we need to do is be like Samuel:


… the LORD called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I.“ (1Sa 3:4 )


Ministry does not take talent; God gives that. It does not require intelligence: God gives that. It does require us to SHOW UP; God won’t do that for us, but He will help.


I cannot tell you how many times I have felt totally out of my depth in ministry. I have learned to “just show up”; my ministry slogan is “90% of life is just showing up.”


When I was working full time, then attending nursing school, even “showing up”  at prison was really hard. I would always be exhausted, and drive down to Hughes with my hair on fire, often reading a nursing text book or drilling on anatomy or drug flash cards (let this be our secret: I drive with my knee, and read stuff when I drive, if there is no traffic).


Things are easier now, and harder, since I am busier. I only work as a nurse two days a week, and go to three different prisons 3-4 times a month, usually on Wednesdays. TDCJ helps me out by having periodic lockdowns and other stuff, so I often get cancelled. I do not mind so much when they call me, but I have been refused admittance because of some security issue THREE times after I arrived after driving 3 hours.


There are plans to create a bank account to fund the prison ministry, then we will solicit donations on the Internet (I said I would do this over 2 months ago). Gas is expensive, and I want to be able to mail bulletins and stuff like blog posts to them regularly, but we cannot afford it. At the present time, our little parish pays for the gasoline, and without this help, I could not do this.


We started studying the Gospel of Matthew using Blessed Theophylact(from St John Chrysostom Press), and I was going to talk about that, but this post is getting a little long. We only got through the first verse, and talked about a lot of interesting stuff.  Later.


The philosophy “Just show up” works. It can be applied to anything, if it is stretched a little. So you have had a bad day? You can “just show up” by fasting like you should. So you can barely pay attention in church? You can still “just show up.” Do you really think your time is better spent being attentive to something worldly, or occasionally attentive to something spiritual when you stand in pray in church? How are you going to get better at prayer and become more peaceful without spending times at it? There is great grace in the services. One of the biggest regrets of my ministry is how seldom so many take advantage of this great grace.


Priest Seraphim Holland 2009.     St Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church, McKinney, Texas



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  1. Father, bless!

    The part about showing up is so true. So many times I am tired at the weekend and wish to stay home and sleep, or watch television, but I find that every time I make the effort to come to liturgy I am happy and refreshed afterwards. I am always happy when I make the effort to come, even if it is a long way and I am beholden to others. And when I have the opportunity to carpool, my friendship with the others in our parish becomes stronger as well.

  2. Father, thank you.

    “And all I did was talk to a guy under a Hackberry tree!”

    It reminded me of the “Butterfly effect”, Father!

    Really every our step, word, gesture – never mind how small it may be & how insignificant it may seem to us – has its effect & lead to some consequences: for us & others. Our bad deeds, or just inattentiveness, or small rudeness, may lead to grave consequences, and we are unable to imagine the scale of ruins we leave after ourselves, deteriorating our soul & moving us away from God.

    Also this phrase:

    “… the LORD called Samuel: and he answered, Here am I.“ (1Sa 3:4 )

    Do we often answer this? More often the answer is: “I am not here”! Please, don’t bother us, don’t notice us, leave us as it is in our artificial peace, which we industriously create around ourselves. I often notice this with me. I think that peace is what can be called spiritual peace, coordination with myself, which produces an illusion of a spiritual well-being; though in reality it is an escape from reality – not the visual one only, but from myself, from what I really am. And we are surprised after all this mentally constructed tower goes into pieces at the first obstacle, at the first intrusion of something unwilling or unexpected into our life. Because how can it be stable, if I hide fro God, calling me? It is also a special grace from Him, being called by Him, as by this He gives us a chance to put a real stone in the building of our house of salvation, to reveal ourselves as Christians, to prove our faith & devotion to Him. And what do we do? What am I doing in this life? Just hiding from Him, like Adam & Eve, as if He cannot find me! He will definitely find, and He sees what I do instead of fallowing Him & responding to His appeal, to His invitation for my salvation.



  3. I once wrote that Jonah’s response to God (before he did time in the belly of a fish) was the opposite of Samuel’s–instead of saying “I am here. Send me.”, Jonah says, “I’m outta here! Don’t send me!” 🙂

    I have Jonah tendencies. I am good about showing up for duty, physically. But I have too often checked out, mentally and emotionally, when God was sending me someplace I did not wish to go (i.e. put me in circumstances that I did not want).

    As Father mentioned, there is great grace in just showing up–but I am one of those guilty of not always taking advantage of this grace. But fortunately, as with Jonah, God loves us so much that He will pursue us and send terrible storms that will make us admit that we are running away, and demonstrate to us that we are heading in the wrong direction. He will send uncomfortable forms of deliverance (i.e. a return trip inside of a fish, fasting, etc… 🙂 ) and set us on firm, dry ground, moving in the right direction.

    In the end Jonah ends up obeying God and going to the place from which he had formally run–but he showed up without his heart. He still did not wish to be there–but at least he was there, physically, obedient to God—and that’s a start. Even after nearly drowning, spending time in a fish, and being used by God to deliver Nineveh, Jonah still had attitude problems and a long way to go–and so do I.

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