Lee A. Moore: Taking Communion in Prison

I’m a big fan of the Eucharist. So was John Wesley. Though you might not know it with the relative non-centrality of the sacrament in most Methodist worship services, the founder of Methodism never went more than four or five days in his adult life without celebrating the Lord’s Supper.

But Wesley never served time in a Pennsylvania prison. Before I was incarcerated, I left Methodism to join the Lutheran Church, in large part because of the weekly observation of the Eucharist. The body and blood of Christ filled me with a powerful, sustaining dose of grace that I relied on to face many life challenges. Then I arrived at a county prison four years ago for a crime I maintain I did not commit, and I lost access to Communion. There was an occasional volunteer-led Bible study, but there was no worship service. No Eucharist. And I needed the body and blood of Christ in a way I had never needed it before.

My Lutheran pastor tried repeatedly to bring Communion to me but was given the correctional runaround. He ran a gauntlet of deputy wardens, assistant deputy wardens, and acting administrative deputy assistant wardens.

He was told he could bring me Communion. Then, after driving more than an hour to the prison, he arrived and was told he could not, as our visits could only be conducted with glass between us. The next time, we got permission to meet together in a room to share Communion. But again, the elements were not permitted when he arrived.

So without Communion during my months at county, I joined my Lutheran friends in spirit. While they gathered at the table on Sunday mornings, I communed with them from a distance. I followed the liturgy from worship bulletins that my pastor had sent me. And with “wine” made from water and grape jelly, and a slice of bread from my meal tray, I joined them in sharing in the body and blood of Christ. It may seem uncouth or even foolish to join in Communion remotely, like a child having pretend tea in plastic cups, but these were vital moments of grace that preserved me in my time of desperate need.

When I moved from county to the state processing facility, I was able to attend worship, either “Protestant” or “Catholic.” I started with the Protestant worship services. In order to accommodate all varieties of Protestantism, the standard weekly worship service did not include Communion. So I was back to jelly juice and a saltine cracker (no bread—removing it from the chow hall was strictly prohibited).

As it happened, I became friends with a Catholic inmate. I told him about my yearning for Communion, and he told me to sign up for Mass and come along with him. I asked him about the church rule banning non-Catholics from the Eucharist. He smiled and put his hand on my shoulder. “This is prison,” he said. “Do you really think God cares if you steal some grace?”

Your Father, Who Sees What Is Done in Secret

The next Sunday, I was off to Mass. The liturgy was very familiar, the missal was easy to follow, and the songs in the back of the booklet contained Methodist and Lutheran hymns.We progressed through the Liturgy of the Eucharist, sitting, standing, kneeling, standing, and kneeling. I love kneeling in worship. It’s different from just sitting in a pew, like you are at some sort of performance. There’s something about getting off your butt and humbling yourself before the Almighty as you feel the discomfort of your body weight pressing down on your knees. It’s active participation in the liturgy, as you engage physically in the story of Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection.

The priest was an older man, chubby but strong, mostly bald with his remaining gray hair barely at crewcut length. His face was a blend of sternness and compassion, heavy on the stern side. I was sure he had some sort of spiritual superpower to detect impostors among his flock of the true faith, like the Terminator or Iron Man with a scanner that labels friend or foe. When he glanced my way, I knew the warning light was glowing red, tagging me with each strain of my religious past: Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, with smatterings of Baptist, Anglican, and Episcopalian.

I mentally ran through worst-case scenarios. If I went forward to receive Communion, he might throw a question at me from the catechism or ask me to name the bishop of the diocese. And when I failed to answer correctly, he would quote the relevant provisions of canon law and motion for an officer to haul me off to “the bucket,” the special housing unit where inmates are kept in high-security lockdown, to perform a 90-day act of contrition.

But then something happened. During the Invitation to Communion, he proclaimed, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” To which we responded, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

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Source: Christianity Today