It was 1991, and as I stood outside the gate of San Quentin State Prison, I gazed straight ahead, some 300 yards, to the old stone and brick building erected 140 years earlier. San Quentin was the first of 33 prisons built in California, and it was the most notorious, known for “housing” inmates on death row.
As we entered the compound, a correctional officer told our group that San Quentin had a no-hostage policy. In other words, if a riot or escape happened, and volunteers were taken captive, we would not be part of any safe-release negotiations.
Not for the first time, I asked myself why I was coming to San Quentin. I felt a deep sense of insecurity, and frankly, outright fear given the prison’s history. But I was determined to honor my commitment.
I was one of a group of men asked to lead a three-day spiritual retreat for 42 inmates. The retreat was called “Kairos,” loosely translated in Greek as “God’s special time.” The idea was to bring Christ into prison. But I had my doubts. These guys were kidnappers and killers after all. Their world was violence, not peace, and besides, why would they even listen to someone like me, a so-called “do-gooder?”
When the retreat began, the men were split into seven groups, six to a table. I sat between an inmate from the Crips (a black gang from L.A.) and the Aryan Brotherhood (a white supremacist gang). It was clear that these guys didn’t like each other; they didn’t even acknowledge one another’s presence. My doubts and fears peaked at that moment, but I vowed to trust the process.
The retreat leaders gave a series of talks each day, which were discussed at length with the inmates at their tables. These talks were not of the “bible-thumping” variety. The incarcerated get enough of that. Instead, they centered on subjects like opening the door, friendship with God, hope, acceptance of self, forgiveness, loving one’s neighbor and finding God.
I knew something of these topics from my days at Regis. Even though I studied business, I took classes such as Ethics, Philosophy of Being, Philosophy of Man, and of course, Philosophy of God. These classes had become the bedrock of my spiritual life and informed how I lived. So, I did my best to share where I could.
By the end of the second day, a miracle occurred. The two men on each side of me were not only fully engaged in conversation, but as the day ended, even hugged each other. There were many who experienced similar epiphanies. And I was among them. I witnessed that God is in all of us, no matter what we’ve done in the past. God is in who we are today.
I have become very comfortable in San Quentin over the years. I have developed many meaningful connections, even being the godfather for several men at their baptisms and confirmations. These days I also facilitate a weekly spirituality class. Each week, we discuss the meaning of personal spirituality and finding God in our lives. The men usually decide what to talk about, and whatever the subject, put aside their vulnerabilities, dig deep into their hearts and trust each other in their discussions.
Ignatian spirituality is very much alive and well in San Quentin. For me it is proof that God is not just with us; He is within us. The men understand that Jesus, in his ministry, never shamed those he forgave. He simply said, “Go and sin no more.”