“WHAT does a garden and the in inmates in jail need most? A caretaker or a shepherd!” – Self quote
As a semi-retired businessman and a part-time apostolic worker, doing almost “nothing” business-wise has become a luxury that is both life-giving and sustaining, especially a day when I can spend as many hours as I desire to be in my garden.
Life is good when when one can enjoy nature with intermittent visits to the refrigerator or occasional recess to one’s home office where the computer is always ready or one has a ready access to an iPad to be connected with one’s Facebook friends at the click of a finger.
Today’s weather is quite conducive to do nothing again. With a very pleasant spring weather, my morning started with my Healthy Coffee and a bowl of cereal in the garden, followed by leisurely work, tending the many different plants in my garden.
Even without any Home and Garden recommended plans, garden work becomes quite natural with lots of common sense management. Unlike the back-breaking farm work under the boiling sun in the Philippines, my gardening work in America is totally fun and enjoyable that makes the hours of the day run much faster.
In late afternoon, I was in another environment that is totally different than my garden. I was in County Jail for several hours, not as an inmate, but as a volunteer with my fellow church prison detention ministers doing our weekly volunteer work.
These two environments (my garden and the jail) are quite distinct and different YET quite parallel in so many ways, both in human and spiritual terms. Both places need a caretaker or a shepherd. Let me expound.
All living things in the garden — from the earthworms to the bees and the plants – are passive by nature, with different shapes, form and color, so are the inmates in jail.
The plants never move without human hands, so are the inmates who cannot roam around without the guards or deputies.
Without the gardener’s love, the plants will wither and eventually die due to lack of water and fertilizer, so will the inmates will become emaciated and may face death without any food and health provisions that are mandated by law.
With total neglect, the good plants can be overtaken by weeds, without the guards that provide protective custody, some inmates will be overpowered and killed by those who hate them.
Insects and bugs surround the garden and must be controlled by the gardeners’ instinct and life-sustaining care. Within the prison walls, many evil or illegal things, including drug or human trafficking, continue to proliferate and planned even inside the prison system, and from time to time these illegal or evil acts are implemented by the inmates’ effective network outside the prison walls.
For a more productive yield and to enhance their natural beauty, the plants in any garden are grouped in accordance with their natural characteristics, so are the inmates are grouped according to the nature of their crimes or their propensity for violence, for their safety and protection from each other.
Plants need plenty of sunlight and water, so are the incarcerated in jails or in prisons, including those in solitary confinements also need sunlight and water to live so as not to suffer from cruel punishment or even death.
The garden needs regular visits from the gardener for the plants to yield their maximum potential, so are the inmates must have some degree of rehabilitating or caring (not just punishment focused) programs like the regular visits from social workers, health professionals, or faith based or religious ministers like us. Some plants attract more bees than others, so are some inmates having some visitors or ministers visiting them.
Surprisingly, many inmates do not have any guests or relatives visiting them at all. Many plants need to be uprooted and transplanted, many inmates are also transported daily from one area to another: to the courts, to safeway houses, to hospitals or to state or federal prison if found guilty or set free after their trials.
Many plants simply are re-generated by their seeds. It was a shocking revelation for me to learn that many inmates or prisoners come from dysfunctional families where grandparents, parents, siblings or even their children have been locked in the prison system in the past or sometimes incarcerated at the same time.
They say “it’s more fun to be with your ‘Mafia’ family at taxpayers’ expense.” How sad, but it’s a reality in our society today.
I learned also that some inmates, especially the indigent and those whose families don’t care for them anymore deliberately commit crime just to be back in jail as they prefer to be incarcerated simply because their basic needs for food, bed, clothing and even dental or hospital care are all provided for, courtesy of us taxpayers, in exchange for giving up their civil rights and freedom, that normal citizens would rather have to enjoy life.
My love affair with my garden was somewhat nostalgic probably to re-live my unpolluted carefree life while growing up in a farming village in the Philippines. The only difference was, then, it was a necessity, working like a slave under the heat of the tropical sun, but now my garden work in America is absolutely optional, done with leisure and pleasure.
It is an inexpensive but effective therapy to de-stress and remove the toxins acquired from some unhealthy activities of our urban daily living.
My introduction and subsequent experiences in the county jail, on the other hand, happened by accident (although I was told by a Franciscan priest that there are really no accidents in God’s dictionary) as if scripted by an Invisible Hand.
To work as a prison detention minister never ever entered my mind, until about a few years ago, when a series of events unfolded before my very eyes that led me to it mysteriously.
For five years, my Bible Study classmates in our church have incessantly invited me to join them to the Orange County Jails to conduct bible study or Communion Services for the inmates. I never did until almost two years ago, when a fellow Rotarian unexpectedly contacted me and sought my help to pray and if possible, to visit her incarcerated daughter (who was accused of murdering her husband) in an Orange County jail.
To lend some moral and spiritual support and to show compassion in her family’s pain, I eventually did volunteer, and weeks thereafter I went through the strict process to become a certified prison minister by the Diocese of Orange and the County Sheriff that issue the annual pass badge to enter the county jails anytime. Ministering to inmates now for the second year, I surprised not only my family and friends but also myself to realize that I am enjoying this weekly experience while also learning from this rare volunteer activity.
I also felt that it has also made me a better Christian and a more compassionate human being. Tending to the “lost sheep” in our society has become a very fulfilling, a true service above self as it fills a “hole in the soul” simply by our presence rendering a non-judgmental face-to-face religious or spiritual services to the inmates in jail.
Reflecting tonight, it occurred to me that since biblical times, prison or jail has some profound redemptive value for many people that has converted many Christian believers even closer to their own God and Creator. The Good Book narrates the imprisonment of many persons, like Moses, Joseph, the son of Jacob in the Old Testament or St. John the Baptist and St. Paul in the New Testament. Their imprisonment even made them more committed to their missions, ideals or causes and fortified them to even face death without fear. Prison for these great biblical characters and leaders served as a fertilizer that grew their faith, instead of breaking them to denounce or reject their own God or Redeemer.
In contemporary times, prison also has transformed some people to become fearless and non-violent leaders. The example of Nelson Mandela who was imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa for fighting the Apartheid practice of the white rulers of his country comes to mind. Instead of becoming bitter against those who caused his imprisonment for almost 3 decades, he offered an olive branch to them and vowed to work for peace and reconciliation. His non- violence style of leadership won him the Nobel Peace Prize and resulted to his becoming president of his country in 1994.
Equally noteworthy was the exemplary life of Mohammad Gandhi who worked fearlessly to unshackle the repressive rule of the British over his native India. Although he did not suffer imprisonment like Mandela, who still alive and now sickly, Gandhi lived not only under the daily threats of being imprisoned but also under the threat of being assassinated by his many enemies. His leadership utilizing non-violent approach eventually toppled the British who ruled India by force and intimidation. Both Mandela and Gandhi are revered and honored as great leaders of peace and non-violence not only in their native countries but throughout the world.
Another person who metamorphosed while in prison was Charles Colson, known as the Watergate “hatchet man” during the Nixon presidency. During his incarceration, he became a born-again Christian and an author. After his release from prison, he founded the Prison Fellowship Ministry in 1976 and his legacy is still ongoing even after his death last year.
The colorful biographies of these three men in three different countries, in different generations, under different circumstances can give us great examples what a life with a deep purpose can do to transform anyone to become what he truly desires to become, despite the threats of prison or even death. In my book, these three men lived a very rich life, without necessarily leaving this earth as rich men. Without any doubt, they are my kind of a hero.
At this stage of my life, to be a small instrument in the metamorphosis of any inmate as a prison detention minister in the County Jail is both a privilege and a precious gift from God for my fellowmen. I pray that I will have the mental and physical health to do it much longer.
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