Thomas Isler has been a prison chaplain in the canton of Neuchâtel for nearly 13years. In this article he elaborates on his conception of this ministry
Translation Louise Thunin
Before greeting a prisoner in his modest living space, I go through one…two…three… up to ten doors, one after the other ! All these doors, symbols of enclosure, exclusion or rejection, are opened only from a distance, or by a corrections officer who sometimes accompanies me. Paradoxically, the prisoner’s door is open only when he is in his cell.
A different universe
The penal universe is a little known world. People know it exists, but what happens inside escapes those who are on the outside. One of the first things I noticed , on arriving, is that time in prison seems to stand still… One waits for things to happen. The lawyer rarely comes…too rarely. Prisoners are somtimes told that they will soon have an appointment with the penitentiary administration or with a judge or a doctor. But nothing is really guaranteed in this environment. They wait very impatiently, apprehensively too, for a visit from a family member or friend who dares come to see them at the prison. The date chosen for the trial seems far, vey far, and is often felt like a weight too heavy to be borne.
Prison is perhaps considered as the place where the detainee makes up for his mistake or else a place where society renders justice to the victim, this without contest. However we look at it, any condemnation or incarceration is, by definition, a traumatic experience.
The very unpleasant sound of doors eternally closing makes up my daily experiene. I have become used to it and I hardly hear it any more. I hold in great esteem the correction officers who take pains to shut cell doors as quietly as possible. If metal doors are necessary, there is another, more significant door, that of the heart. What I desire above all, as a chaplain, is to find the key that will allow me to meet people in trust and contact them in depth. If the person I’m speaking to experiences some quality time, it will make it easier for him to put up with being shut in. How many times have I heard sentences such as : “Thank you so much for having spent some time with me…“ “Don’t hesitate to come back ; the door will always be open for you.“ “It really did me a lot of good to chat with you ; you can’t imagine…” A certain number of prisoners have very little contact with a chaplain, while others see him as a resource or someone on whom they can lean.
Relationships with prisoners
“Dear Chaplain, I m writing you these few lines to tell you how important you are to us and all the good you bring us in these difficult times we have to undergo ; you help us keep the faith“ ; “Thanks to you I have kept up courage and hope” ; ”Ever since I have known you, something in me has changed… ” This last sentence, excerpted from a prisoner’s letter to a chaplain, sums up in a few words the very essence of this ministry. The notion of faith in God takes on another dimension when one has beeen arrested. Moralizing discourse serves little purpose. One has to dare ask real, existential questions, the ones that send us back into ourselves, that help us understand the depth and complexity of our existence.
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