My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints at the women's jail in Philadelphia this past Friday morning.
It was my first time ever inside a house of correction, let alone speaking at one. I won't lie to you and say that I wowed them like Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison. It was hard. It was hard from the moment I approached the security guard at the front desk, who demanded to see the poster-size images of saints that I had brought as visuals. The permissions form that the chaplain had filled out said I was bringing "Christian literature," and the guard said that pictures did not count as "literature." When I pleaded, she let me bring some of my images in, but said I had to put one of them in the locker with my purse before she would let me pass.
The guard rolled up the banned picture before giving it back to me; I stuffed it in the locker quickly in order to move on. It wasn't until beginning my talk that I realized with regret that the one saint I could not show the women was the one I most wanted them to see: Blessed Laura Vicuña, whose story was the main inspiration for my writing My Peace I Give You.
Once the security guard cleared me for entrance, I had to pass through the metal detector, have my hand stamped, and get a patdown. If you have experienced sexual abuse, you know that patdowns are trauma triggers.
Then I and my three companions—the Catholic chaplain and two members of a local nonprofit that helps combat recidivism—passed through the sally port. It is kind of like the sets of doors Don Adams passes through during the opening credits of "Get Smart!", except more claustrophobic and not funny.
After showing my stamped hand to another guard, I was led to a gym, where a few inmates were waiting, dressed in their standard-issue light blue shirts and black pants (like the women in this photo). A few more were trickling in. Some of them were missing teeth. I remembered the conversation I had the night before with a woman in criminal justice who told me about the various ways in which prostituted women were most typically abused by pimps; having teeth knocked out was one of them.
Once twenty inmates had arrived, the chaplain suggested I begin my presentation.
I was unaware as I stood before the women that the jail was reported last month to have one of the highest rates of inmate-on-inmate sexual assault in the country. That may help to explain why, although I felt like I made a good impression at first, some of the inmates became visibly uncomfortable once they caught on to the specific subject matter of my talk. (It had been promoted to them as being about "healing and spirituality.")
Continuing full steam ahead, I launched into my conversion story, which usually engages audience members' attention pretty well. Some of the women did seem interested in it, but not all. Just as I was getting to the part about how the love of Christ first became real to me, two of them turned to one another and started kissing, which went on for some minutes. I hoped that a guard would intervene, but no one did. There was nothing to do but keep talking.
Public displays of affection are also a trauma trigger for me.
Although I had adapted my presentation to make it more relevant for an audience that was not necessarily Catholic, it was clear to me as I went on that I had not adapted it enough. Again, I just kept going, thankful for those women who were following me, and continuously making mental notes of what to do better next time.
There was one question during the Q&A, from a woman in the front row who had been paying attention the whole time. She asked me to explain what it means to call someone a "patron saint" and to say more about what is the Eucharist, which I did. Afterwards, she told me that she had posed the question for the benefit of her fellow inmates, which I thought was rather sweet, though it made me feel sorry again for not having thought of that beforehand.
The nicest moment was after my talk, when four inmates, including the one who asked the question, approached me asking for copies of My Peace I Give You. Since I had not been allowed to bring in books, I assured them I would give the chaplain enough copies to give to each of them, which I did.
Two of my companions took me out to a Vietnamese lunch afterwards. One of them, a lawyer, tried to explain to me the art of storytelling: "You don't say, 'St. Josephine Bakhita was born in 1869.' You say, 'Bakhita and her sister thought they were safe outside their family's home, when a man jumped out of the bushes."
I thanked her and poked my chopsticks around my shrimp saté. I did not have much of an appetite.
All I could think about was the fact that I had finally done it: actually walked into a jail, given a talk, reached some inmates, and failed to reach others. It was intense, it was hard, it brought up various traumas. But if I could do it once, I could do it again—and do it better. And I do want to do it again, please God.
If you would like to donate to support my making mission trips to speak to inmates or other needy populations (such as unwed mothers, or people who are in recovery), here is a link to give via PayPal. Donations made to my PayPal account will be set aside for travel expenses for such trips, unless otherwise specified. I do also have other personal expenses coming up for which I am grateful for assistance, such as the medical bill for my recent eye operation. If you would like your donation to go towards those expenses, please note that in the message field on the PayPal screen, or let me know by e-mail.